PIERRE, S.D. — Bridges owned by South Dakota counties and communities are older and in poorer condition than the national average, but state officials hope federal grant dollars will continue helping them catch up on repairs.

"We know we have a number of poor condition bridges," said Tammy Williams, SDDOT program manager, during a Thursday, April 29 meeting of the South Dakota Transportation Commission. But Williams told the commission that federal grant funding of more than $30 million might arrive annually for the next four years.

Pressed how dependable that funding could be, she responded, "We're programming for it, though... and just hoping."

"Hope money," interjected commissioner Mike Vehle, to laughter.

The state of South Dakota's bridges is more sobering, though.

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A national trade group released a report earlier this year finding that South Dakota has the fourth-worst rating of structurally-deficient bridges in the country.

And as Congress debates dueling infrastructure approaches — President Biden announcing he wants to spend more than $2 trillion, while Senate Republicans have proposed a pared-down $500 billion plan — South Dakotans, where bridge funding is reliant on federal dollars, are listening.

On Thursday, state officials said the deteriorated conditions aren't largely found within the inventory of 1,800 or so in the state's direct ownership.

"Our state structures are in pretty good shape," Steve Johnson, chief bridge engineer for SDDOT, told the commission.

But conditions grow more precarious on the 3,900 structures owned by counties or cities, where the average bridge age (51 years) is seven years older than the national average (44). On Thursday, Williams said that fully 25% of that inventory is classified by the state as in "poor condition."

"The county system occurred a little bit sooner," said Williams, noting roads and accompanying bridges were erected beginning in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, decades before the interstate highway system upon which many state-owned structures rest. "So a lot of the local structures are from that era."

But she said they're "making progress."

Last year, a federal-local program funded the repair of 49 structures. On Thursday, the commission voted unanimously to approve authorizing $21.5 million in federal dollars to replace 31 structures — and remove another 11 — currently in the public inventory of bridges, and place them on the coming year's planning budget.

"It's a good deal," commented Williams.

The bridges, she said, were selected by a rating system that awarded points to applicants based upon the condition of the bridge and its "user impact." The bridges awarded include a number crossing the varied waterways, which state officials pointed to as a perennial challenge in certain regions of South Dakota.

"If you look on the eastern side of the state, you can actually see the major rivers that go through South Dakota and the tributaries that tie into them," observed Mike Behm, director of the division of planning and engineering, who provide the commission on Thursday with a "state of the structures" report, summarizing conditions of the 5,700 publicly owned bridges — covering 82,000 miles of roadway — in South Dakota.

Of the 31 bridges slated to be replaced, four cross Wolf Creek in rural Hand County, while others include structures spanning the Big Sioux and Miller Creek in Spearfish.