PIERRE, S.D. — Cathy Roling lives off Highway 38 west of Salem, S.D., and watched when a vehicle hauling farm equipment knocked out a temporary bridge connecting her to town last December.
A busy highway with truck traffic, a detour on the highway meant miles on unkept gravel roads, which sloshed to mud in rain or snow.
"When it's shut down, and you have an emergency out west of the bridge, the response time is terrible because how do you get an ambulance out there having to zig-zag (on dirt roads)?" Roling said Monday, April 5. "It just creates havoc,"
But when Roling went to the local road supervisor, he reported the bridge was slated for replacement in 2024, after being damaged in flooding six years earlier, in 2018.
That was too long for her.
"I looked at him and said, 'Not on my watch.'"
Roling emailed her state legislators.
In Roling's case, the state responded. The temporary bridge has been fixed, and she says the bridge has leapfrogged toward the front of South Dakota DOT's list of replacements.
But that's just the story of one bridge. And she fears South Dakotans in every county could tell a similar bridge story.
The nation's infrastructure has dominated the news since last week when President Joe Biden traveled to Pittsburgh to unveil his $2.3 trillion plan, including $620 billion would be spent on "transportation infrastructure."
And, more than most states, South Dakota could use it.
The latest state-by-state inventory of bridges, using federal highway data, from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, finds South Dakota has the fourth-highest rate of structurally deficient roads in the country, trailing only West Virginia, neighboring Iowa, and Rhode Island.
Nearly one out of every five of South Dakota's 5,800 bridges, says the group, has a component in "poor or worse condition," including two on interstates. While safety experts say bridges on the verge of collapse will be closed, there have certainly been close calls.
This summer, a semi partially sank a small bridge on Nemo Road in the Black Hills. In November 2018, a bridge in rural Turner County fell 10 feet, injuring three construction workers. And last year, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe even considered establishing tollbooths at more than half-a-dozen locations throughout U.S. Highway 212 to raise funds to replace neglected bridges, months after a washed-out culvert on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota killed two South Dakota motorists.
The South Dakota Legislature has taken notice. With a record-breaking amount of one-time monies this last cycle, lawmakers considered a pair of bills asking the state to kick in millions to address woebegone bridges and culverts, many the responsibility of cash-strapped counties and townships.
During brief remarks on crossover day in February, Rep. Richard Vasgaard, R-Centerville, stood to lament the current state of culverts and bridges in the state's southeastern corner.
"We can be thankful that our forefathers overbuilt those bridges," Vasgaard said. "Because they're holding up (when) we're driving 80,000-pound semis across them."
But he warned, "At some point in time, this might catch up with us."
Both bills, in essence, were passed, with the governor signing House Bill 1259 to spend $6 million on small infrastructure, and the Senate tabling a separate bill after transportation officials found the roughly $3 million in matching funds for a federal repair grant.
Rep. Caleb Finck, R-Tripp, the prime sponsor of both bills, told lawmakers that with the county and township program alone, "We did 49 structures last year, and I'm hoping we can do another 49 this year."
Nevertheless, those would be only a fraction of the 1,000-plus bridges in need of upgrades.
Speaking by phone on Monday, April 5, Finck said it's not only the absence of major funding to take a large chunk out of the proposed bridge repairs (the American Road & Transportation Builders Association report suggests just shy of $1 billion is needed).
"Even if I could wave my wand and say, 'POOF, here's the funding,' there aren't enough construction crews to get that all done in a one-time way, anyway," Finck said.
The rollout of the infrastructure plan, currently facing tall, but not insurmountable odds with President Biden's party holding slim majorities in the Senate and the House, has not been warmly received by South Dakota's all-Republican federal delegation.
In response to a question on the $80 billion earmarked by the bill for Amtrak, a passenger rail system that doesn't pass through South Dakota, a spokesperson for Sen. John Thune issued a statement to FNS saying the Biden plan "fails to prioritize infrastructure important to states like South Dakota."
Gov. Kristi Noem also slammed the plan saying during an interview last week with television host Sean Hannity on Fox News, saying too much money went toward "housing and pipes and different initiatives, green energy."
Her interview drew a retort from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Sunday, who said funding for "pipes" relates to replacing old plumbing, because "too many families now (are) living with the threat of lead poisoning."
Nevertheless, aside from the politics and whatever booster shot the federal plan may give to local construction, the bridges are being tackled on a local level, if at a slower pace. Two of the bridges listed by the Builders Association crossing the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls are slated for repairs, says a city engineer. Federal funds will be used to build a new bridge spanning the Missouri River between Pierre and Fort Pierre.
And — after three years — there's now that bridge coming for Highway 38 west of Salem.
Which was just in time, as Roling said two drivers ended up in the ditch after speeding through the temporary bridge just prior to the farm vehicle damaging the bridge.
"I don't know why we have so many (bridges in need of repair)," Roling said. "Is it that we haven't kept up? I don't know. I just hope that someone doesn't get killed."