RICHMOND — The new Richmond-Dresden bridge opened to much fanfare Friday.

Elementary school students from the two towns on opposite ends of the new span across the Kennebec River met in the middle of the bridge, called the Maine Kennebec Bridge, for grand opening ceremonies with temperatures in the teens and thin pieces of ice floating by on the river below.

The new bridge towers over the nearly 84-year-old swing-span bridge it will replace.

The old bridge continued to carry traffic across the river during the ceremonies Friday. The familiar humming and thunking sounds from cars crossing the aged, rusted and dented old structure sometimes partially drowned out speakers on the new bridge during grand opening, which was attended by hundreds of local residents and dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Gov. Paul LePage and Greg Nadeau, acting director of the Federal Highway Administration.

At low tide, the new bridge is 115 feet above the water, according to Jack Parker, president of Woolwich-based Reed and Reed, the firm that built the $18.6 million span.

Collins recalled touring the old bridge three years ago with Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt and cringing while they drove across it because the bridge is so narrow she was convinced their vehicle would be struck by a large sport utility vehicle headed in the opposite direction. She viewed the many dents in the bridge structure where trucks, a bit too tall to make it across, hit and bent the steel upper structure over the years.

“I then knew this bridge had to be a priority for replacement,” said Collins, who high-fived many of the elementary school students on hand for the ceremony on her way to the stage set up in the middle of the bridge. “I called the (then U.S.) secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, and said, ‘You won’t believe the bridge I just went over.’ I sent him pictures of it.”

Federal money is covering 80 percent of the cost, and the state Transportation Department is funding the other 20 percent.

LePage said the new bridge should outlive everyone at the bridge opening ceremony, as it is projected to last at least 100 years.

Some attendees Friday did outlive the old bridge, including Bob Sidelinger, 91, of Richmond, who, with other local senior citizens, helped cut the ribbon for the new bridge. Members of his family took his photograph and called him a celebrity as he walked off the bridge, carrying a piece of ribbon from the ribbon cutting.

Russell Ring, who grew up in Richmond and came from his home in Union for the bridge opening, was born in 1931, the same year the old bridge was built. He said he remembers when part of that span was taken out by an ice jam and washed downriver in 1936. He said he has lots of good memories involving the old bridge, including using it to cross the river to get to dances at Pownalborough Hall on the Dresden side of the Kennebec.

But the 83-year-old Ring said he won’t miss the old bridge, and he thinks the new bridge is “beautiful.”

The bridge opened to vehicles early Friday afternoon and the old bridge is now closed to traffic.

The old bridge will be torn down over the next several months.

Parker said the target completion date for the project wasn’t until December 2015, which included removal of the old bridge. The construction project was completed ahead of schedule despite workers on the job enduring the weather extremes of working as high up as 115 feet off the water and the howling winds that go with such a setting.

He said workers endured temperatures as low as 20 below zero in winter, as well as sweltering conditions in July to complete the bridge.

He thanked area residents for enduring the disruption of construction, and said the company did not receive a single complaint while the work was going on.

Bernhardt said to design and build such a substantial and important bridge in a three-year period “truly is amazing.”

“It’s a historic day when you can help two great communities stay connected,” Bernhardt said, noting the busloads of students from each side of the river.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

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Twitter: kedwardskj