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May 18, 2018 10:00 PM

Eye On KELOLAND: Bridging The Budget

It's that time of year when road construction season shifts into high-gear across South Dakota.  President Trump's proposal for more than one trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending had many communities hoping they could tackle more construction projects.  But just last week, the White House acknowledged that no sweeping infrastructure bill will likely happen this year. 

The City of Sioux Falls is working to bridge the gap between tight budgets and safer roads.

The 8th Street bridge over the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls was an architectural wonder back in its day.

"And I think it's just remarkable how wide they built it, how strong they built it back then, and it has served us now for over 100 years,"  Public Works Director Mark Cotter said.

The bridge was built back in 1912.  But age, and the elements, have taken their toll.  This upper section of the bridge was upgraded back in the 1970s.  But decades of salt buildup have been eating away at some sections of the bridge causing part of it to crumble and expose the rebar underneath.

"Just over the last 50 years, they've taken a lot of salt, they soaked it in and ultimately a lot of freeze-thaw actions and that is just deteriorating," Cotter said.

The bridge's rating based on federal standards has plummeted to 34 out of a possible 100.

"That's a very low rating, one of the key factors in that rating is age and the fact that it's over 100 years old, naturally, will put that down," Cotter said.

Yet despite that low score, engineers have determined the bridge remains structurally sound.  It's so sturdy that instead of spending more than $12 million to replace the bridge, the City of Sioux Falls will spend only a third of that amount by rehabbing it.

"A city's transportation system is normally their largest asset, so it's so important to rehabilitate and extend the life of the pavements because replacing them is massively expensive," Cotter said. 

Laura Palmer commutes from her home in Madison, South Dakota to her job in Sioux Falls.   She sees first-hand the importance of driving on safe roads and bridges every day.

"And being an agricultural state our roads oftentimes take a bit of a beating because of the weight of the tractors and the different agricultural vehicles that are on the road," Palmer said.

Roads and bridges in South Dakota face a sharp divide when it comes to upkeep.

"97 percent of our state highway bridges are in good or fair condition and that compares favorably with anybody.  Not such a good story on our local bridges, especially our counties and bridges on township roads and in cities, probably roughly a quarter of those need work," South Dakota Secretary of Transportation Darin Bergquist said.

75 percent of funding for South Dakota road and bridge projects comes from the federal government.  U.S Senator John Thune says any additional spending will likely come in piecemeal fashion.  He says it will fall far short of the $1.5 trillion that President Trump had campaigned on.

"So if we could come up with 20 or 30 or $40 billion that we could put back into highways, it would double what we're doing on an annual basis, so it would be significant, but certainly not on the scale the president was talking about," Thune said.

Thune says there isn't a political appetite in Congress to raise fuel taxes to pay for new infrastructure spending.  No federal money is going into the 8th Street Bridge.  The City will reach out for public input on the project while finalizing the design.  The repairs are expected to be completed in 2020.  A project that preserves the city's past while serving as a bridge to the future.

The original 8th Street bridge was built in 1876 and was the first crossing of the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls.  That bridge was washed out by flooding.   A second bridge was built in 1882 but didn't meet increased traffic demands.  The new 8th Street Bridge is expected to last another 75 years.

If you'd like to check on the conditions of other bridges in South Dakota, click here.

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