PORTLAND – When the original Veterans Memorial Bridge was built in the 1950s, it was the longest and most expensive bridge in Maine.

Although its replacement can’t claim either distinction, the bridge that opened Thursday was hailed by Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt as an “iconic gateway” connecting Portland and South Portland.

The new, $65 million Veterans Memorial Bridge, a product of collaboration by local, state and federal entities, stretches more than one-third of a mile across the Fore River. It was built with 361 pieces of precast concrete, each weighing more than 60 tons.

Its asphalt top is coal black and smooth, not yet faded by sun or wear; the road stripes are pristine white.

At its widest, the span is six lanes and includes a 12-foot-wide pathway for pedestrians and bicyclists, many of whom turned out Thursday to test it out.

Among the riders was Eric Tupper with Maine Adaptive, an organization that offers outdoor programs and activities to people with disabilities. He sat on a bike that he pedaled with his hands rather than his feet.

“It’s really a wonderful amenity,” he said of the pathway.

The bridge took more than two years to build, but the work by general contractor Reed & Reed Inc. of Woolwich was finished on time and on budget, Bernhardt said during a ceremony before the bridge’s official opening.

Jack Parker, the company’s CEO, said Reed & Reed has been building bridges all over New England since 1928. “This is what we do,” he said.

Thursday’s ceremony on the new bridge drew some big names, including Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez. He said the project is a great example of cooperation between two cities and state and federal officials.

The pathway, for instance, is something that came up often as the public provided input before construction began. That input prompted the designer and builder to include the path.

“When you look at this type of bridge, this is what President Obama has been talking about: building an America that is built to last,” Mendez said in an interview. “And all these workers out here, without these types of investments, they could be home, not working.”

Parker said his firm relies heavily on state and federal dollars, so he was happy to see the project move forward and put more than 100 Reed & Reed employees and contractors to work.

The old bridge, built and dedicated shortly after the end of the Korean War, had been deteriorating for years. It was always safe for vehicles, but needed to be replaced, Bernhardt said.

“We were just holding it together, waiting for the funding,” he said.

The $65 million cost of the new bridge — nine times the cost of the old one — is more than Maine spends on all bridges in a given year. About $50 million of the total was federal money.

The old bridge lasted less than 60 years; its replacement was designed and built to last 100.

Like the original, the new bridge is dedicated to veterans, a group that’s more than 150,000 strong in Maine. A memorial is part of the project, where the bridge intersects with the Fore River Parkway.

Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage, helped to dedicate the new bridge, not only to veterans but to current servicemen and women. “Let this bridge be a symbol of your strength, your dedication and your fortitude,” she said.

By noon, the guests were gone and the new bridge was open to traffic. With more than 22,000 vehicles crossing each day, it will be one of the busiest bridges in the state.

Parker said the old bridge will start coming down today.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell