Open Again

Work continued on the Niobrara River bridge, west of Niobrara, Neb., last month in an effort to re-open Nebraska Highway 12. The town’s water tower can be seen in the background. The Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) officially announced Saturday that the bridge, along with a temporary structure for the Mormon Canal bridge, are now open for travel. A NDOT celebratory ceremony will be held Tuesday, with a community celebration planned later in the week.

NIOBRARA, Neb. — After being closed for five months because of flooding, Nebraska Highway 12 has re-opened west of Niobrara.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) formally announced Saturday that the Highway 12 bridge over the Niobrara River west of Niobrara is open to traffic.

The March 2019 flood event caused significant damage to the approach and girders of the bridge and completely washed out the bridge over the Mormon Canal.

The loss of those structures forced the closure of Highway 12 — a major east-west travel artery — between Niobrara and Verdel, Nebraska, to the west. The closed road also affected westbound traffic for Niobrara State Park, located about one mile west of Niobrara.

Highway 12 reconstruction became the most complex and expensive transportation flood recovery project in the state.  

“Nebraska’s road to recovery continues to move forward, and today marks another great milestone in our state’s efforts to rebuild after the March 2019 floods,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a news release.

“The opening of Highway 12 over the Niobrara River is another key link in establishing connectivity for local residents, the community, travelers, and commerce in the area, which have all been so profoundly impacted by the flood damage.”

In honor of Highway 12 reopening, NDOT is hosting a celebratory community event at 2 p.m. Tuesday to mark the accomplishment.  The ceremony will be located on the west end of the Mormon Canal Bridge, just east of where the temporary road diverges to the bridge.  

Because of the very limited parking at the event site, a shuttle ride service will be made available for attendees. The shuttle will pick up passengers at the old NDOT maintenance yard in Niobrara, located at the northeast corner of the junction of Nebraska Highways 12 and 14.

Niobrara residents are also planning a community celebration for later this week, according to the town’s website. The schedule tentatively calls for forming a caravan Friday evening and taking a “bridge ride” from Niobrara to Verdel. A full celebration, welcoming visitors who have been cut off from the west, is scheduled for Saturday.

More details are expected this week, and the public is encouraged to attend.

The NDOT has sought to complete the needed work for re-opening Highway 12 for now, with final work completed at a later date, according to District Three engineer Kevin Domogalla.

“The Niobrara (River) bridge is undergoing repairs. When open, it will be safe for travel with some repair work remaining on the closed lane of the bridge,” he said. “The Mormon Canal bridge, when open, will be a temporary bridge while they are building the new bridge.”

During the ongoing construction, another structure will remain in place that’s not intended for public use, Domagalla said.

“They have built another ‘bridge’ that is in place but is built solely for the construction equipment to be able to access and build the temporary bridge and the permanent bridge,” he said. “Once the new bridge is completed and opened to traffic, the temporary and contractor’s bridge will both be removed.”

The permanent Mormon Canal bridge is slated to open in 2020.

NDOT spokesperson Vicki Kramer confirmed Sunday that the temporary Mormon Canal bridge is currently open for travel. The structure allows traffic to continue between Niobrara and Verdel, which contains a number of homes at Lazy River Acres.

Transportation has been hampered since March, when a bomb cyclone inundated Nebraska with flooding. The situation worsened when Spencer Dam, which regulates the Niobrara River, breached and unleashed an estimated 11-foot wall of water. The dam breach also released massive ice jams, more resembling ice bergs, causing extensive property and infrastructure.

Highway 12 and other roads suffered surface and bridge damage. Access was cut, causing hardships and long detours for farmers and livestock producers as well as commuters to jobs. The travel problems also disrupted local business, tourism, recreation, health care services and first responders.

Most of Nebraska, including the north-central and northeast regions, was declared a federal disaster area. The NDOT was faced with multiple infrastructure needs around the state all at the same time.

“NDOT’s work with Benesch and Hawkins Construction on this project has been incredible and our collective efforts are the reason why (Saturday’s) announcement is possible,” Ricketts said in his news release.

On June 5, NDOT awarded a $44,170,911 contract to Hawkins Construction to begin immediate work to repair the Niobrara River Bridge and to install a 24-foot wide, single lane temporary bridge to provide access over the Mormon Canal, while a new permanent bridge is being built.

The Highway 12 project contained a number of obstacles, said Chris Hawkins, chief operating officer of Hawkins Construction.

“Highway 12 presented a unique challenge due to the pace and complexity of the project,” he said. “That, combined with the amount of flood recovery work we were already performing, required us to bring in a team from multiple states – whom we thank for their rapid response and commitment to opening the bridge early.”

The team effort allowed the effort to move at a faster past, Hawkins said.

“Hawkins, our dedicated workforce, and our project partners are grateful for the opportunity to prove once again that our state is ‘Nebraska Strong,’” he said

The NDOT also worked closely with Alfred Benesch & Company in order to speed up the reconstruction design. They set an aggressive schedule to have the temporary roadway in service by Aug. 15.

Prior reconstruction efforts in the area included repair work to damaged sections of Highway 12 east of Niobrara. On sites, K. Porter Construction was able to rebuild approximately one-fourth mile of pavement in just 24 days.

Niobrara has sustained a history of flooding, and Highway 12 east of Niobrara was covered for months by Missouri River flooding in 2011.

This time, Highway 12 allowed east access, and travelers could access the region through the Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge between Niobrara and Running Water, located on the South Dakota side.

Domogalla, the NDOT District 3 engineer, said the current effort sought to complete the work as quickly and safely as possible.

“Getting Highway 12 reopened has been a tremendous challenge, and I’m so proud of the District 3 staff and our industry partners who put in the sweat and long hours to make this happen,” he said.

All parties knew from the outset that they face a major project, Domogalla said. He referred to NDOT Director Kyle Schneweis’ observation.

“As Director Schneweis said, we literally watched the canal bridge float down the river,” Domogalla said. “Over the last several months, we worked every angle from design to construction to deliver a solution to get this highway reopened as soon and as safely as possible.

“We set an aggressive schedule, and our people, with the help of Hawkins Construction and Benesch delivered.”

In its press release, the NDOT thanked the community and all involved in the reconstruction for their patience, partnership, effort and dedication on completing repairs in an expedited time period.  


Subcontractors included United Contractors, Inc., of Johnston, Iowa, temporary bridge installation; Ames Construction Inc., of Burnsville, Minnesota, grading contractor; Contractor Services, Inc., of North Platte, Nebraska, traffic control; D-K Contracting Corporation, of Beatrice, Nebraska, concrete pavement patching; Gross Seed Company, of Johnstown, Nebraska, erosion control and seeding; Iron Works, Inc. of Nebraska City, Nebraska, reinforcing steel installation; JMN Construction, LLC, of Valley, Nebraska, bridge repair; Longfellow Foundations, Inc., of Hutchinson, Kansas, installation of shaft foundations; and Midwest Fence Company — Guardrail Systems, of Ralston, Nebraska, guardrail.

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