NORTH LITTLE ROCK — In just a few days, the gridlock that has plagued motorists for months during peak morning and afternoon commutes into and out of the downtown Little Rock-North Little Rock area will be eased considerably, state and local officials say.

Five months after the Broadway Bridge link between North Little Rock and Little Rock was closed and demolished, the new Broadway Bridge saw its first official vehicular traffic on Monday during a ceremonial crossing of the span.

Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett, accompanied by several highway commissioners, Pulaski County Quorum Court members, and the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock for a ceremonial first crossing of the new bridge, held a brief press conference near the center of the span.

The five-car procession began on the North Little Rock side of the bridge, and after the press conference at the center, completed the short trek to the Little Rock side.

Bennett credited the mild winter for the rapid pace of construction, which culminated in an estimated six month closure of the route on September 28, 2016, giving Massman Construction of Kansas City until March 29 to open the span to traffic.

“There is still going to be some work going on for a few more weeks, they have to finish some work on the pavement and stripe it,” Bennett said, noting that recent rains had delayed the anticipated opening to next week.

You can see what a great addition this is going to be to downtown, Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County,” Bennett continued.

He said the double basket handle arch design will be an attractive addition to the riverfront skyline and, once completed, the bridge will accommodate vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic.

Work began in January 2015 as construction crews began drilling the footing locations for the new bridge, assembling construction offices, bringing in material, and building the pedestrian and bicycle ramps that will tie into the bridge upon completion.

Closure of the 92-year-old bridge to traffic started a 180-day clock which Massman Construction had to beat or face financial penalties of $80 thousand per day for every day over the March 29 deadline the project goes. Coming in under deadline will earn the company a bonus of $80 thousand per day, and depending on what day next week the span opens to north-south traffic, that could total between $2 million and $2.5 million in an incentive bonus payout.

In a news release, the highway department said initially, only north-south vehicle traffic will be allowed to cross the bridge, as it will be several weeks yet before connections will be made to a southbound off-ramp to westbound Arkansas State Highway 10 and to the 16-foot shared use path. The release said motorists can expect periodic, off-peak lane closures to finish up some items, such as pavement striping and painting of the bridge supports.

Once completed, the total cost of the new bridge will be just under $100 million. The bridge it replaces was built in 1921 at a cost just under $1 million. The decision to replace the aging structure was made in 2011 after the superstructure, substructure, and deck of the bridge were deemed structurally deficient and no longer cost-efficient to maintain.

Because the bridge is an active construction zone, the ceremony on Monday was closed to the public. However, the Highway Department has scheduled a ribbon-cutting and commissioning of the bridge on April 6 at 4 p.m. in west parking lot across from Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. That event is open to the public.