INVITED guests stood high above the existing Pacific Highway at the edge of the Hastings River on Thursday as the first sod was turned for the construction of the new bridge across the river.
State and federal government representatives, project managers from Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) and contractor Lend Lease gathered for the occasion.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development Warren Truss said, at 574 metres, the bridge is one of the longest along the highway.
Each pier casing, of which there are 28, weighs 23 tonnes and is lifted into place by a 250-tonne barge crane while a 180-tonne crane on the shore shuffles each into place ready for placement.
RMS general manager of the Pacific Highway project Bob Higgins welcomed the ministers and officials and introduced Uncle Bill O'Brien who gave his Welcome to Country.
Mr Truss then thanked the ministers and reminded all that last October the first sod was turned on the other side of the river.
He said the progress over recent times will see the $5.4 billion four-lane upgrade of the Pacific Highway to Ballina completed before the turn of this decade.
"We are well and truly on schedule with this transformational project for NSW," he said.
He said the substantial investment of $542 million from the federal government and $277 million from the state government for this particular section of the upgrade from Oxley Highway to Kundabung would provide lasting infrastructure and employment.
On completion the bridge will have a total deck area of 12,000m2 made up of 150 super-T girders weighing 80 tonnes each.
The four-lane bridge will be 23 metres wide and capable of withstanding a one-in-100-year flood event.
State Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight Duncan Gay said there was "nothing better than working with a grown up government in Canberra".
"The milestones are rolling in thick and fast on the whole Pacific Highway upgrade and today's sod turn is a great example of a key achievement being reached by the project team," Mr Gay said.
He said the Wilson River Bridge was expected for completion in mid-2017 and work was progressing on the Blackmans Point interchange.
Mr Gay said two of the advantages of the project were safety and job creation.
"Every kilometre of road we build means less lives will be lost," he said. "At its peak along the highway, 10,000 jobs will have been created and that is so important.
"We can see the finish line, and when you can see it, it makes you go that much faster."
Lyne MP David Gillespie said it was a proud day for local members and a great day for tourism and transport that would become a "lasting legacy that will outlive us all".
Improving flood immunity on the highway would be a real boost to productivity and efficiency, Dr Gillespie said.
Port Macquarie MP Leslie Williams, who was unable to attend the ceremony, said residents would benefit in many ways from the project.
"It is a significant milestone in the highway duplication in our local electorate," she said. "Local suppliers of construction materials and many other local businesses will enjoy the flow-on benefits of construction upgrades such as this bridge.
"It's very important, not only for our local community, but the many visitors that use the highway."
"Even more importantly, the number of lives lost annually on the highway has halved and is expected to decline even further nearing the completion of further upgrades."
Oxley MP Melinda Pavey said the bridge will provide a seamless transition between communities along the highway.
"The project is part of an overall $1.05 billion investment in the highway between Port Macquarie and Kempsey over three years," she said.
"I am grateful for the state and federal government working together to achieve this.
"It will deliver a major economic boost for the region through the creation of 933 construction jobs and more than 2,900 indirect jobs," Ms Pavey said.
Construction of the Hastings River Bridge is expected to be complete by late 2017.