Starting next year, the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) will upgrade two major highways in Yankton County that have been the scene of numerous fatal accidents.
The work on U.S. Highway 81 north of Yankton and U.S. Highway 46 east and west of Irene comes in response to dangerous situations on those two stretches, said Mike Behm, the SDDOT director for the division of planning and engineering.
“You’re going to be seeing a great deal of activity (in the Yankton region) during the next four years,” he told the Press & Dakotan.
The SDDOT has held public meetings this summer on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for the years 2020-23. A local meeting was held in Yankton, followed by a regional meeting in Mitchell.
The final hurdle comes next month, when the South Dakota Transportation Commission plans to finalize and approve the four-year STIP at its Aug. 29 meeting in Pierre. The commission will include newly-appointed member Bruce Cull of Yankton, who will attend his first meeting this Thursday.
The STIP meetings not only inform the public about the DOT plans but also allow the agency to receive the public’s input and concerns, Behm said.
“It’s not the DOT’s highways. We’re overseeing items, but it’s for the folks, the travelers on our roads from South Dakota and other states,” he said. “We want to see if our plans are meeting their needs.”
In that respect, state officials have heard the increasing concerns about U.S. Highway 81 and S.D. 19, Behm said. The ongoing discussions with Yankton and other area communities have moved those projects toward fruition, he added.
Currently, the Highway 81 project is scheduled for fiscal year 2023. The STIP describes the work as covering about six miles north of Yankton, from the end of the divided lanes to 303rd Street.
“We talked at last year’s STIP meeting and had some great conversations with the Yankton Chamber of Commerce,” Behm said.
Those conversations were followed up last winter with more talks between DOT officials and Mike Healy of the Yankton chamber’s transportation committee, Behm said.
“We visited over the winter with Mike Healy about making Highway 81 a four-lane that ends north of town,” Behm said. “It would go up north to 303rd Street. Our folks are talking with folks down there (in Yankton).”
The planned work includes a number of new or implemented safety features, Behm said. In particular, he pointed to the current hazards at Poverty Valley, an area north of Yankton which includes hills and curves.
“We need to replace a bridge at Poverty Valley, and we’re adding a climb lane and turn lanes,” Behm said. “There is continued development and growth in that area. Now, we’re looking to get public input on changing that to a four-lane section.”
While listed as a four-year document, the STIP is actually rewritten each year to reflect changing conditions, priorities and funding. The proposed U.S. Highway 81 work could remain scheduled on 2023 but could also be moved forward or back on the long-term plan.
The S.D. Highway 46 project provides an example of the ongoing process in terms of planning and construction. Highway 46 remains a major travel artery between Yankton and Sioux Falls. The stretch between U.S. 81 and Interstate 29 remains particularly popular for local residents, commuters and recreationists headed for the Missouri River and for Lewis and Clark Lake near Yankton.
However, Highway 46 has also become known as a hazardous stretch of highway, with narrow and even no shoulders, numerous hills and places with obstructed views. The highway can become even more treacherous during winter with icy and snowy conditions.
Because of the road’s hazards, the Yankton School District will not use Highway 19 for student transportation.
The SDDOT has undertaken a number of measures in recent years, as funding allowed. The upcoming work will tackle a number of comprehensive needs, according to SDDOT officials.
The work will be completed in phases over several years, according to Craig Smith, the SDDOT regional engineer for the Mitchell area, which covers southeast South Dakota.
Smith described the Highway 46 work during the STIP regional meeting in Mitchell, which has also been archived on the SDDOT website.
“When we’re completed with this project, we’ll have it all the way from Highway 81 east to Beresford out to the Iowa state line,” he said. “We’ll have that whole segment improved from Iowa through Highway 81.”
The preparations have already begun for next year’s work, Smith said.
“In terms of fiscal years, a lot of work is planned on Highway 46,” he said. “One project has already let (for bidding).”
According to the proposed STIP, the Highway 46 work would be undertaken in the following phases for each fiscal year:
• 2020: from Irene to west of S.D. Highway 19/19A. The 11 miles of work would include shoulder widening, structure replacement, pipe work, spot grading and interim surfacing.
• 2021: from U.S. 81 to Irene. The 12 miles of work would include grading, interim surfacing and structure replacement. The improvements will also include intersection lighting at the junction of U.S. 81 and S.D. 46, approximately 14 miles north of Yankton.
• 2022: This phase, which has construction planned to begin in 2023, calls from surfacing work from U.S. 81 to Irene.
At the STIP meeting, Healy commended the DOT for bringing a number of regional projects to fruition.
“We really do appreciate the DOT and working with me over the years on so many transportation needs,” he said. “I think you (state officials) have made things efficient and effective. We have a good working relationship with the state DOT and our regional office.”
In particular, Healy stressed the importance of the U.S. 81 and S.D. 19 upgrades.
“With the number of fatalities showing up and the various types of stakeholders served by these roads and going through (the area), it’s going to be a great improvement,” he said.
Safety remains a key factor when designing highway projects, Behm told the Press & Dakotan. The DOT is taking into account not only Yankton’s current needs but factors such as the changing traffic patterns and major growth on stretches such as U.S. i1 north of Yankton, he said.
“When we do these projects, we’re looking not only at the history but what can be anticipated for changes in the future,” he said. “We’re planning these projects for years, even decades, to come.”
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