AMONG THE FIRST: Stephanie Smith (reflected in the side view mirror) was one of the first drivers to cross from Milton to Madison on the newly reopened bridge Thursday night. Smith and her fiance, Jonathan Barnes, were excited to go to Madison to shop. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
AMONG THE FIRST: Stephanie Smith (reflected in the side view mirror) was one of the first drivers to cross from Milton to Madison on the newly reopened bridge Thursday night. Smith and her fiance, Jonathan Barnes, were excited to go to Madison to shop. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Motorists drove across the Madison-Milton bridge Thursday night cheering and honking horns as the bridge - now sitting on its permanent piers - reopened after being closed for 37 days.

The connection between Madison and Milton reopened at 7:17 p.m. Project officials had anticipated the bridge would reopen by 11:59 p.m.

Cars began lining up on both sides of the river before 6:45 p.m. just waiting for a chance to be part of the historic event. Project officials plan a celebration at a later date.

Stephanie Smith and Jonathan Barnes were in one of the first vehicles to cross from the Kentucky side of the river. Barnes had crossed the bridge just hours before the emergency closure in March, so they wanted to be in one of the first vehicles to cross when it reopened.

The bridge reopening allows Smith and Barnes to think about beginning the renovations at their Milton home again. The renovations had been stalled during the closing because Smith and Barnes had been purchasing the materials at a Madison store and without the bridge it was too difficult to make the trip.

Madison Mayor Damon Welch was like many other area residents and didn't expect the bridge to open so soon on Thursday. He and his wife had been walking along the Madison riverfront when they decided to see how work was progressing.

The Welches saw crews preparing to reopen the bridge hours earlier than expected. With their car parked at their downtown home, they were able to get a ride in the third car to cross from the Indiana side of the river.

Welch said the whole project has been "unbelievable," and he's excited to see the bridge reopened.

"We have people that work on both sides of the river," Welch said. "Just this last month it's been closed, we can see what kind of an effect it's had."

When state officials first began discussions for the project, the bridge was expected to be closed for up to 18 months while crews took down the old structure, reinforced piers and built the new superstructure. 

The bridge slide method proposed by Walsh Construction and subcontractors Buckland & Taylor and Burgess & Niple cut the timeframe down to what officials expected to be a 10-day closure.

An unexpected steel bridge bearing dislodged causing the crossing to close for 31 days longer than expected.

"Other than this little hiccup for the last month, it's like (Walsh Construction project manager) Charlie (Gannon) said a while ago, they're going to go from villains to heroes in about five minutes," Welch said, "and you can see the celebration going on."

While the bridge closure caused lost revenue on both sides of the bridge, Welch said the reopening will soon reverse the losses.

The reopening also will allow heavy truck traffic to use the bridge for the first time in nearly five years. Large trucks haven't been able to cross the river since a weight-limit restriction was placed on the old bridge in April 2009.

"Just overnight, it's going to open up the businesses again," Welch said.

Project officials said there will be additional work near the bridge, including completion of the pier caps, removal of temporary piers, installation of a sidewalk, grading the riverbank along Vaughn Drive and more.

The area is still considered a work zone, and a speed limit of 20 mph will remain until all construction is complete.

Construction work is expected to be finished later this summer, officials said.