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Davison Co. celebrates SD’s first completed BIG program project

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South Dakota Transportation Commissioner and former state Sen. Mike Vehle, of Mitchell, serves as master of ceremonies for the ribbon-cutting of the Foster Street bridge on Tuesday. The bridge rehabilitation was the first to be completed under the Bridge Improvement Grant system created through 2015's Senate Bill 1, a bill Vehle sponsored. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)2 / 2

Tuesday was a big day for Transportation Commissioner and former state Sen. Mike Vehle.

More than two years after his highway and bridge funding bill — known as Senate Bill 1 — made its long journey through the state Legislature, Vehle was on hand for the ribbon-cutting of the first bridge rehabilitation project completed through the bill.

The Foster Street bridge just north of Mitchell was rehabilitated for approximately $665,000 over the summer, keeping it in service for years to come with a full-scale rebuild.

Before a group of guests on an unseasonably warm October day, Vehle was glad to see his years work come to fruition.

"You can have the nicest oil road coming up to the bridge, or you can have just a washboard piece of junk dirt road," Vehle said. "But if there's no bridge, it's all over, you're not going anywhere."

The rehab was funded mostly through Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG) funds, for which the project received $507,200 from the state when it was awarded in 2016. The other funds came from Davison County, which was able to acquire the state grant because it has a five-year transportation plan and levies a wheel tax.

Rather than closing the bridge for as long as a year for a full replacement, it was closed for mere months, turning a long-term hassle for nearby residents and business owners into a temporary concern. At the bridge to celebrate the swift-moving project was Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist, state Sen. Joshua Klumb and about 30 more attendees.

Vehle, Bergquist and Michels were integral in passing Senate Bill 1, and each told tales of the hardships they overcame in moving the bill through the Legislature. Following Vehle to the podium Tuesday was Michels, who lauded both the project's completion and all those who helped it become a reality.

Michels spoke highly of Davison County's ability to put the BIG program to good use, as well as Vehle's commitment to getting Senate Bill 1 off the ground.

"That perseverance, tenacity, dream and vision is incredibly important on any of these initiatives," Michels said.

The ribbon-cutting was furnished by the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce for what Davison County Commission Chair Brenda Bode called a "country-casual affair," and coffee and snacks were served from the back of Bode's vintage pickup. Between remarks from Bergquist and final words from Vehle, Bode welcomed the Davison County staff on hand to the podium to celebrate their efforts on the project.

Prior to county staff's recognition from Bode, Bergquist offered an anecdote from a time when he wasn't so certain Senate Bill 1 would ever take effect. But when Bergquist was down, he said Vehle was by his side as the voice of optimism.

"And there was times during that session that he and I were working together that I gave up, I thought it was dead," Bergquist said. "... I have a picture that still hangs on my wall in my office today, and it's the senator and I walking down the hall and I've got my head down in defeat, and he's looking at me saying, 'We're not done yet, we're still fighting.' "

So far, 138 grants have been awarded as part of the BIG program according to the governor's office, reaching a total of $19 million. All projects are expected to end by the summer of 2020, and five preservation gran projects and two replacements are expected to be completed this fall.