SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota is ranked top in the country for its bridges and not in a good way.
The state has the 4th highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country according to a recent report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
An estimated 7.3 million vehicles cross over the state’s 5,824 bridges every day.
According to the ATRBA report, South Dakota’s percentage of structurally deficient bridges in 2018 was 16.7 percent.
Steve Johnson is the Chief Bridge Engineer for the state’s Department of Transportation.
“We’re making headway on structurally deficient structures,” Johnson said.
His team is responsible for about 1,800 of the 5,824 bridges in the state.
The state has been making progress. The percentage in 2014 was 18.2 percent. Still, it’s more than double the national average of 7.6 percent in 2018.
It’s important to note this doesn’t mean these bridges are unsafe, but it does mean the bridge requires significant maintenance, rehab or needs to be completely replaced.
“Structurally deficient does not mean unsafe,” Johnson said. “It’s a structure in need of some work.”
Johnson said the state regularly inspects its structures and if there is a safety issue, the DOT closes it.
“If it’s open, then it’s safe for the public to travel,” Johnson said. “We do not allow unsafe structures to remain open.”
According to The American Society of Civil Engineers, critical load-carrying elements were found to be in poor condition due to deterioration or damage.
The money problem
Understanding why that number is so high is a complex problem of funding from local, state and federal governments and it’s not an issue unique to the state. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the country a D+ for infrastructure.
“Funding regardless of the source is always a challenge,” Johnson said.
Infrastructure was a key part of President Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House in 2016 – and the area where Democrats and Republicans were expected to make bi-partisan progress, but have stalled.
It’s not all bad news from Washington D.C. Just last week, the State of South Dakota was awarded $13 million to replace the bridge connecting Pierre to Fort Pierre by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“This bridge serves as an essential link between East River and West River South Dakota, so I am glad it will be receiving the funding needed to ensure this important thoroughfare remains a safe piece of infrastructure for everyone across the state who uses it,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said in a statement.
The grant was awarded as part of the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America Program.
“This investment will ensure that our infrastructure in South Dakota remains strong for years to come and will continue to provide access to all four corners of our state,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) said in a statement.
Meanwhile, an infrastructure bill was introduced on Monday in the U.S. Senate.
One of the things the bill does is authorize $287 billion over five years to maintain and repair America’s roads and bridges.
“Infrastructure has been, and I hope will continue to be, an area where bipartisanship can prevail, which is why I was glad to see the Committee on Environment and Public Works today released its bipartisan, five-year transportation bill,” Thune said. “While I am still reviewing the bill in its entirety, I believe it takes important steps toward improving infrastructure, particularly in rural areas like South Dakota. I look forward to working with my colleagues on this and other opportunities to further strengthen our nation’s roads, bridges, and railways.”
For local governments, a program that has been helping rebuild bridges is the Bridge Improvement Grant enacted by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
$15 million is available in grant money to local governments each year under the BIG program. A county must impose a wheel tax to be eligible for the grant.
Pennington County is one of a handful in the state that doesn’t have a wheel tax and cannot get this grant.
How bridges are inspected
Most bridges in South Dakota are inspected every two years. Some are inspected every four years and a few are inspected every year. This is all reported to the federal government.
Bridges are put into one of three categories: good, fair and poor. This is determined by looking at several different parts of the bridge: the deck, superstructure, substructure or culvert, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Essentially if a bridge is listed in poor condition it’s structurally deficient.
KELOLAND News analyzed that data and put together a county-by-county look in South Dakota at the state of bridges.
Bridges are also given what’s called a sufficiency rating. This is determined by a number of factors including the evaluation of the structure and its importance to the public.
The sufficiency rating goes from 0 to 100. 100 being the best.
We took all of the bridges and culverts in South Dakota and looked at their sufficiency rating and the year they were built.
Watch for more stories on this topic later on KELOLAND.com.