A month ago, visitors driving from St. George to Zion National Park had to loop around via Toquerville, nine miles out of their way, because the bridge over the Virgin River was destroyed by the Jan. 1 flood.

Today, traffic is back to normal along U-9 across the river, thanks to the speedy construction of a "store-bought" temporary bridge.The steel truss bridge replaces a 50-year-old structure damaged by the Jan. 1 flood. Weakening the old bridge was just part of the $12 million in damage caused when the Quail Creek Dike burst, sending a wall of water roaring into the Virgin River.

The bridge was a crucial link, connecting I-15 with the towns of Hurricane and Springdale, Washington County, as well as the national park.

But an "erector set" temporary bridge was purchased by state officials from Acrow Manufacturers in New York state. It was shipped to Utah in sections and assembled by Gilbert Western Corp., Murray.

It was opened on Monday. Two hundred feet long, 24 feet wide, bordered by guard rails, the temporary bridge accommodates two-way traffic.

"It's working fine," said Kim Morris, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. In addition to assembling the bridge, Gilbert Western "basically rebuilt about a half a mile of U-9 that was destroyed."

The project took only 15 days, instead of the 18 days allowed by the contract.

"It's a very safe structure, can handle normal loads of traffic, so there won't be any restrictions on truck traffic on that bridge," Morris said.

Officials estimate the substitute will be in service between 18 and 20 months, while a new permanent bridge is built. Then it can be unbolted, boxed, and stored until another emergency requires its use.

J.R. Chamberlain, director of UDOT's District 5, Cedar City, said, "Because of the curve coming onto it, we've got a speed limit reduction up to it, 30 mph."

The old bridge could have been repaired. But that would have cost nearly as much as buying the temporary bridge, which will remain useful to the state in case of future emergencies.

Besides, officials wanted to replace the earlier bridge anyway, because traffic has increased substantially there in the last half-century. With President Bush's declaration that Washington County suffered a major disaster, federal money will be available to pay for 75 percent of the replacement cost of public facilities.

UDOT experts are working to get the environmental clearances for the permanent bridge. These include archaeological studies and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so that fill material can be placed in the Virgin River.

The old bridge may be on a list of historic structures, which would force the state to go through some more paperwork before it is demolished.

As this is an emergency project, "hopefully they'll proceed a little bit more swiftly than normal," Chamberlain said.