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SALISBURY — The new Interstate 85 South bridge over the Yadkin River will be open to traffic for the weekend, the state’s top transportation official announced Thursday.

Crews will start shifting traffic tonight, N.C. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said at a news conference on the southbound span linking Rowan and Davidson counties.

The state opened the new northbound bridge last May and later shifted southbound traffic to two of its four lanes while contractors completed the second span.

The new bridges replace the 58-year-old Yadkin River Bridge, which AAA Carolinas consistently named one of the state’s worst in recent years. They are part of a $201.5 million project to realign and widen 7 miles of the interstate in Rowan and Davidson counties and replace a number of bridges along the route.

The old bridges are being demolished.

Tata said the new bridges and road widening will benefit more than drivers.

“This roadway goes a long way toward keeping jobs and attracting jobs to North Carolina,” Tata said.

The bridge is more than twice as wide, Tata said, and has shoulder areas along the road in the case of emergencies.

First responders have seen improved conditions when traveling to calls on the northbound lanes, Tata said.

“We expect these improvements to reduce the historically high crash rate along this section of I-85,” Tata said. “Emergency responders have told us that they’re reporting fewer crashes and say when accidents actually do happen, they can reach them faster and easier because there isn’t as much congestion, which is important to all of us.”

Tata spoke to reporters at a press conference on the new southbound bridge. Along with him, project engineers including Pat Ivey, Rowan County’s Transportation Department engineer, and recent State Transportation Board appointee Jake Alexander III attended the announcement.

Alexander, who worked for the transportation department in the late 1980s, said the bridge was an issue that needed to be addressed 30 years ago, and it was a priority for his father, a former transportation secretary.

“I have felt for years that once the interstate from this bridge back to Charlotte is finished, regional, national and international developers are going to wake up one day and go, ‘Wow, it only takes 40 minutes to go from I-77 to the Yadkin River Bridge — it only takes 30 minutes to go from Jake Alexander Boulevard to Harris Boulevard,’ ” Alexander said, following the announcement. “I think the impact will be profound.”

Alexander was appointed to the board by Gov. Pat McCrory in February.

“This is a great way to start,” he said.

“I know a little bit about the process, but I’ve never served on the board before. My dad was on the board, and there’s a certain amount of pride there that — this was a topic for him 30 years ago. This was a topic for me when I was there 25 years ago,” Alexander said.

“That’s one of the great things about transportation. They’re such massive projects that when you’re around at the beginning of the planning and then 20, 30 years later you see it developed. It’s really quite remarkable.”

Ivey, who has worked as a division engineer on the project for 13 years, urged motorists on the road tonight to be aware of the changes and follow detour signs.

Crews are expected to close a portion of the interstate about 10 p.m. and finish a roadway connector that leads to the new bridge. By Saturday morning, drivers will be traveling on the new four-lane crossing.

Ivey said local residents should see an immediate impact and economic developers for Rowan County will now have something with which to entice prospective businesses.

“We have heard for years that the old interstate was one of the barriers that economic development folks in both counties have seen. Once this project is completed it’s going to open up the entire area for economic development,” Ivey said.

“Clearly this is going to be a tremendous improvement for commerce in the entire state,” he said. “But when you look at Davidson and Rowan counties, this is going to be a tremendous feather in their cap that they can use to tout this area for economic development for the areas adjacent to it and just the counties as a whole.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

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