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State program issues $23 million more to repair, restore bridges statewide

Bridge Improvement Grant program the brainchild of former state senator Vehle

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The South Dakota Transportation Commission at a recent meeting awarded 39 preservation, rehabilitation and replacement Bridge Improvement Grants totaling approximately $23 million. To date, the program has awarded $101.2 million in grants to improve South Dakota bridges, like this one that crosses Firesteel Creek on North Foster Street in Mitchell.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

PIERRE — The South Dakota Transportation Commission awarded 39 preservation, rehabilitation and replacement Bridge Improvement Grants totaling approximately $23 million at a recent meeting of the commission held in Pierre.

South Dakota Secretary of Transportation Joel Jundt said the program continues to be an excellent tool to address the issue of bridge preservation and maintenance in South Dakota.

“The BIG program continues to be very popular for the necessary preservation, rehabilitation and replacement of local government structures,” Jundt said in a statement. “The DOT commends the Transportation Commission for their continued commitment to provide state funding for this vital local government program. The goal is to enhance the overall condition of these critical assets that South Dakotans are dependent upon each and every day. These structures provide the link that drives the interconnectedness of our state’s overall transportation system while enhancing statewide economic development detail.”

The cities of Sioux Falls and Brookings received two grants. Pennington County received six grants, Day County and Union County received three grants, and Clark County, Deuel County, Grant County, Gregory County, Haakon County, Hanson County, Hughes County, Kingsbury County, Lake County, Lawrence County, Lincoln County, McCook County, Minnehaha County, Sanborn County and Yankton County all received one grant each.

There were 52 applications totaling $42.9 million in total project costs that were received by the South Dakota Department of Transportation. In total, one city submitted two applications and 27 counties submitted 50 applications.

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The Bridge Improvement Grant program was created by the 2015 legislative session in Senate Bill 1. Senate Bill 1 states that in order to be eligible for a BIG grant, a county must impose a wheel tax. In addition, a county must have a county highway and bridge improvement plan to detail proposed county highway and bridge improvement projects within the county for the next five years.

Cities are not required to have a transportation plan, and they do not have statutory authority to establish a wheel tax.

Mike Vehle, a former state senator for District 20 and a current member of the South Dakota Transportation Commission, sponsored Senate Bill 1 in 2015. He said it was needed to help keep South Dakota bridges safe and open, but it wasn’t necessarily an easy proposition to sell.

“It took me about seven years to get that passed. Anytime you want to increase taxes, you’re going to run into some sawmills,” Vehle told the Mitchell Republic. “It wasn’t that I wanted to tax people. I wanted to fix the roads.”

The transportation commission was tasked with creating administrative rules regarding the application process and timelines, the guidelines and criteria for approval of applications, and the distribution of funds from the local BIG fund. The transportation commission was also tasked with developing the administrative rules for the plans. The rules are to provide the format of the plan and the time by which an update of the plan must be submitted.

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The bridge over Firesteel Creek on North Foster Street is one of many bridges that has benefited over the years from the Bridge Improvement Grant program.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Senate Bill 1 dedicated $7 million per year for the BIG funds. This money comes from the license plate fees and from non-commercial vehicle fees. In addition, SDDOT annually sets aside $8 million per year of state gas tax funds, for a total of $15 million available for the BIG grants.

This year, the Transportation Commission awarded approximately $1.5 million in preliminary engineering grants, increased the available funding by $7.5 million, reallocated approximately $2.25 million from closed projects for a total of $24.75 million.

The $24.75 million total represents the amount allocated within this grant cycle, which began last fall with preliminary engineering grants. To date, the BIG program has awarded $101.2 million in grants to local governments, including the allocations made this year.

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Local governments are required to pay a minimum of 20% in matching funds and have three years to expend the grant award.

Vehle said there is a level of satisfaction knowing that the bill he helped push through the South Dakota Legislature back in 2015 is continuing to do some good for drivers in the state. Bridges that have been repaired or worked on thanks to funds from the BIG grant program carry a sign stating as much.

“There is (a level of satisfaction). There’s a sign that goes up on every BIG bridge, whether it’s in the county or wherever. When I see that, a smile goes on my face a little bit,” Vehle said.

Applications for the next round of the BIG program are due Aug. 1 for the preliminary engineering category. More information can be found by calling 605-773-4284 or visiting https://dot.sd.gov/doing-business/local-governments/bridge-improvement-grants .

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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