Higher taxes and fees fix hundreds of bridges, but some local governments don’t participate

Challenges remain as BIG program funds improvements

By: - August 18, 2023 6:41 pm
The South Dakota Department of Transportation works on the Pfc. Frederick Farlee Memorial Bridge on U.S. Highway 212, 1 mile west of Lantry, on June 2, 2023. The bridge is state-owned, though it is located in Dewey County. (Photo courtesy of Steven Jacobs, SDDOT)

The South Dakota Department of Transportation works on the Pfc. Frederick Farlee Memorial Bridge on U.S. Highway 212, 1 mile west of Lantry, on June 2, 2023. The bridge is state-owned, though it is located in Dewey County. (Photo courtesy of Steven Jacobs, SDDOT)

In 2015, nearly 25% of locally owned bridges in South Dakota were in poor condition.

Eight years later, more than $142 million in taxpayer funding has been spent on 500 local bridge improvement grants through a state program. As of 2022, the number of locally owned bridges in poor condition had decreased by 46 while the number in good condition had increased by 138, but about 20% of the counties in the state had never received a grant.

Trying to fix the state’s bridges is like swimming upstream, said Mike Vehle, a former state legislator who led the effort to create the state’s Bridge Improvement Grant program. The state is making progress, but bridges are still aging and “getting worse all the time.”

“It’s a slow go,” Vehle said.

Legislators created the BIG program in 2015 with a bill that generated millions of dollars in additional funding for roads and bridges across the state through increases in gas taxes, excise taxes and license plate fees. It was a monumental effort — taking seven years for Vehle to convince the public and other lawmakers that higher taxes and fees would be worth it.

As Vehle looked at it, South Dakotans could either start paying slightly higher taxes and fees immediately, or pay a much higher price for crumbling bridges and infrastructure in the future.

Now, Vehle serves on the South Dakota Transportation Commission, which awards bridge improvement grants to counties and cities across the state.

Vehle said the program has been successful. It’s putting the state — and the counties participating in the program — in a better position than if the program didn’t exist, he said.

“If we wouldn’t have done this, we would really be in a hole,” Vehle said.

BIG is a ‘critical local government program,’ officials say

South Dakota has about 5,700 publicly owned bridges, around 3,900 of which are owned by local governments. Most of those local bridges were built before 1980, and 93% of the bridges from that era are in poor or fair condition.

About 75% of the bridges statewide that are in poor condition, based on square feet, are owned by local governments.

“We have an aging infrastructure in our local government systems,” said Mike Behm, director of planning and engineering for the state Department of Transportation. Behm presented the data earlier this summer to legislative members of a study committee on county funding and services.

The number of bridges in poor condition in South Dakota has dropped from 970 in 2015 to 924 in 2022, though the department began adding closed bridges from the previous year back into the inventory in 2019 — adding more bridges into the "poor" category than were previously reported. (Photo courtesy of SDDOT)
The number of bridges in poor condition in South Dakota dropped from 970 in 2015 to 924 in 2022, although the state changed its methodology when it began adding closed bridges into the inventory in the “poor” category in 2019. (Chart courtesy of SDDOT)

The summer study focuses on regionalization and consolidation of county services, how the state can partner with counties to make mandated services more affordable, and an analysis of county funding models and revenues.

The state has awarded nearly 500 bridge improvements grants since 2016 — 120 for replacement, 95 for preservation and 283 for preliminary engineering.

The program has been “very successful” in Black Hills-based Lawrence County, said state Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish. When he was elected to the Lawrence County Commission seven years ago, the county hadn’t built a new bridge in nearly 10 years.

Since then, the county has received over a dozen grants from the program.

“Without the BIG program, we wouldn’t have been able to afford them,” Deibert said. “… I think without it we would have had bigger problems.”

The program is a two-step process, Behm told South Dakota Searchlight. Preliminary studies allow local governments to have a firm understanding of the work and cost of a project. There’s no timeline associated with the awards, so local governments can plan and apply for replacement and rehabilitation grants when they’re ready.

Local governments have to “have some skin in the game” to qualify for the program, Vehle said. Counties must fund 20% of the projects, implement a wheel tax and have a five-year transportation plan. The qualifications are similar for cities, but without the wheel tax requirement.

In the most recent round of BIG applications, eight cities submitted nine applications and 28 counties submitted 65 applications. All cities that applied were awarded grants, while 22 of the 28 counties to apply received a total of 28 awards.

The program takes $7 million annually from license plate fees and non-commercial vehicle fees and puts it toward grants. The state Department of Transportation also sets aside $8 million of state highway funds each year for the program.

While that’s typically $15 million available for the program, the state Transportation Commission this year reallocated $1.4 million from prior projects and budgeted an additional $25 million for the program, raising the total state funds available to $41.4 million.

Additionally, $75 million in federal funds was allocated to the BIG program last month that can be used through the 2027 fiscal year.

Secretary of Transportation Joel Jundt said the grants are a “critical local government program” in a news release announcing the latest rounds of grants.

Rural, small counties can still struggle to afford BIG program

Fifty grants have been awarded to 20 cities in South Dakota since the program began, ranging from Blunt to Hot Springs to Sioux Falls. 

Thirteen of South Dakota’s 66 counties haven’t participated in the BIG program, and some others have only received one or two awards since the program started. County officials may dislike the wheel tax requirement, counties might not have many locally owned bridges, or they might not have bridges in bad enough shape to repair.

Counties that haven’t received BIG grants

  • Bennett County
  • Brule County
  • Buffalo County
  • Edmunds County
  • Faulk County
  • Harding County
  • Hyde County
  • Jones County
  • McPherson County
  • Oglala Lakota County
  • Potter County
  • Todd County
  • Walworth County

Harding County in the northwest corner of the state only has a few local bridges. Most have passed inspection, and the county hasn’t participated in the BIG program to study them further. The county is one of five that doesn’t have a wheel tax.

“We’d love to participate,” said Charlie Verhulst, chairman of the county commission, “but we think passing a wheel tax is just another tax, and we don’t think we’d meet all the criteria since we don’t have a high traffic count.”

Grants are awarded based on a point system which takes into account the bridge’s condition, impact on users (multiplying the average daily traffic with the detour length in miles), local financial commitment and other planning considerations.

If the county of about 1,300 residents passes a wheel tax and doesn’t receive a grant, taxpayers — especially rural ranchers and farmers who haul livestock and crops on semis and tractors with lots of wheels — would bear the burden without a payoff, Verhulst reasoned.

Verhulst also said it’s unfair that cities don’t have to implement a wheel tax or some other comparative tax to participate.

Vehle said that’s a fair point, saying if there’s one thing he’d change, he would prevent cities in counties without a wheel tax from applying for the program.

“I screwed up on that,” he acknowledged.

Clay County, in the southeastern corner of the state, was awarded grants for the first time earlier this year. While the county has had a wheel tax in place for years, it didn’t have a transportation plan. The county is also the smallest in South Dakota by area, limiting its taxable property.

“Access to funding is really critical, even if your share of the project is only 20%, when you only have one major source of revenue,” said Betty Smith, Clay County commission chair.

South Dakota counties have limited means of revenue collection — they can’t implement sales taxes like the state or municipalities, and their annual property tax increases are capped at 3% or the rate of inflation (whichever is lower).

Buffalo County, in central South Dakota, applied for its first grant earlier this summer after passing a wheel tax a few years ago to qualify for the program. Six of the county’s seven bridges were built in 1975, and one bridge has an estimated repair cost of $1.5 million, said Buffalo County Commission Chairwoman Dawn Cable.

That bridge is in “desperate need,” she added. The county has placed load limits on the bridge, which is essential for farmers and ranchers.

“I just pray to God everyday somebody doesn’t disregard those load limits,” Cable said.

Buffalo County commissioners were hesitant to establish a wheel tax for years, Cable said. While there are over 1,800 residents in the county, only 179 form the county’s tax base and would pay the wheel tax since the rest of the residents live on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation.

Part of the solution to make it easier for rural, small-population counties to participate in programs like BIG or properly fund their government, Cable said, is to open other streams of revenue for counties, whether that’s implementing a sales tax or allocating some state alcohol tax dollars to county governments.

It’s becoming a bigger issue as costs for construction, public safety and staff salaries increase — and it’s something the summer study is meant to address. Construction costs alone have “inflated terribly” over the past few years, Vehle added.

“We’re all sitting here,” Vehle said, “scratching our heads about what to do about it.”



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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.