DOT Raises Discovery Bridge Speed Limit

South Dakota Transportation Commissioner Jafar Karim listens to discussion during Tuesday’s meeting in Yankton.

In two months, traffic could move faster on part of the Discovery Bridge crossing the Missouri River at Yankton.

At Tuesday’s meeting in Yankton, the South Dakota Transportation Commission raised the speed limit for U.S. Highway 81 from the north end of the bridge and ending at the South Dakota/Nebraska border on the bridge.

The speed limit would be raised to 45 mile per hour (mph).

Currently, the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) has set a speed limit of 35 mph for the entire length of the bridge. However, much of the bridge lies in Nebraska.

With Tuesday’s action, the measure moves toward final approval and implementation, according to SDDOT chief legal counsel Karla Engle.

“These changes now go to the Rules Review Committee, which meets Nov. 1,” she told the Press & Dakotan. “If it’s approved there, it goes into effect 20 days later.”

During Tuesday’s public hearing, Engle spoke to the Transportation Commission — which includes Bruce Cull of Yankton — about the reasons for the proposed changes.

According to state statute, the Transportation Commission holds the authority to set speed limits of less than 65 mph on the state highway system, she said.

The current rule uses the term “the end of the bridge,” which is open to interpretation. The amendment will make the rule clear that the speed zone ends at the border, which is where South Dakota’s authority ends.

“The bridge was actually designed for 45 mph,” she said. “Almost immediately after the rule took effect, we noticed there was a discrepancy between what was posted out there and what was listed in the rule. We’re proposing to change it to 45 mph to coincide with the signage.”

The hike in speed limit shouldn’t negatively affect the traffic flow or safety in either direction, Engle said. The regional traffic engineer noted it would be easier to raise the speed limit because of the four-lane highway with no ramps or access routes, she added.

The commissioners approved the rule change.

Mitchell Region Engineer Craig Smith of the SDDOT provided information on the bridge’s construction and features. The bridge cost $23.8 million with joint funding from the SDDOT and the Nebraska Department of Roads.

Since its start, Discovery Bridge has created a huge regional impact, according to Dave Mingo with the City of Yankton.

Mingo thanked the SDDOT and the Transportation Commission for its support on the Discovery Bridge and the conversion of the Meridian Bridge from vehicle to walking and biking usage.

Discovery Bridge’s value has been immeasurable, Mingo said.

“From a workforce standpoint, we have 1,500 to 1,700 vehicles a day that cross the bridge from Nebraska,” he said. “The people who come to work in Yankton from Nebraska have a huge impact on the city. They also come to the city for many things.”

In an era of worker shortages, such a huge labor force provides a major resource, Mingo told the Press & Dakotan.

“We have many people who use the bridge and come here for jobs, but we still have hundreds of jobs unfilled in the community,” he said. “Workforce development is a big part of our mission. Nebraska residents come to Yankton for work, and we’re very happy about it.”

The labor force isn’t the only beneficiary of the bridge, Mingo said. The easier access provides a boost to retail, services, manufacturing and other businesses, health care systems, recreational offerings and education.

“The Discovery Bridge benefits every aspect of our economy,” he said.

In addition, the bridge provides a crucial link for regional, national and even international travel as a U.S. Highway 81 connection, Mingo said.

He estimated Discovery Bridge sees about 10,000 vehicles daily, based on the City of Yankton’s tracking of about 16,000 vehicles daily on a section of Broadway Avenue. Those vehicles that don’t cross the bridge likely take other local highways, he said.

After the meeting recessed Tuesday, commission members visited the adjacent NFAA Easton Yankton Archery Center and the activity underway with the 2021 Hyundai World Archery Championship.

Cull serves as NFAA president and as the archery center’s general manager. He noted that millions of television and online viewers will see the Discovery Bridge, neighboring Meridian Bridge and other Yankton landmarks.

The worldwide exposure provides untold benefits, Mingo said.

“This (archery tournament) is off the charts as far as ever imagining something like it would end up in Yankton,” he said. “We’re all extremely thankful.”

Such major projects are possible because of the good working relationships between the City of Yankton and its state and federal counterparts, Mingo said.

“All of these programs are extremely complicated, and our relationships are so important,” he said. “From a community perspective, we want to keep the dialogue open and make sure we’re all on the same page with these projects.”

The Transportation Commission will tour highway projects today (Wednesday) at Springfield, Viborg and Vermillion before concluding with the Meridian Bridge at Yankton.

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