The Meridian Bridge on the Missouri River continues to serve Yankton after nearly a century, but the structure could be demolished when its life expectancy ends in 2036.
The double-decker bridge, built with private funds, opened to traffic in 1924, and the structure linking South Dakota and Nebraska showed signs of deterioration in its later years.
In 2008, the replacement Discovery Bridge was opened to the west for traffic. Meridian Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and, after conversion work, re-opened for pedestrian traffic in 2011.
At a recent meeting in Yankton, the South Dakota Transportation Commission learned more about future plans for Meridian Bridge.
The converted bridge holds an estimated life of 25 years, but that figure could change depending on several factors, said Mitchell Region Engineer Craig Smith with the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT).
“Under the current agreement, the City of Yankton took over Meridian Bridge ownership when it was closed to vehicles and turned into a hiking and biking path,” he said. “The city has also taken over maintenance responsibility, and that includes underwater inspection.”
The agreement includes a plan for when the bridge no longer remains usable, Smith said.
“When the city feels it’s no longer feasible for them to maintain the bridge based on its condition, ownership comes back to the DOT,” he said. “We’re responsible for demolition of the structure.”
The state received $2.81 million from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for demolition of the bridge, and the fund’s value has increased to $3.236 million, Smith said. The money can only be used for the structure’s demolition.
“When the city decides it can no longer maintain the bridge, when that day comes, we work together on what’s needed for demolition and letting the contract,” Smith said. “It will hopefully be years down the road.”
Transportation Commissioner Donald Roby of Watertown asked about the anticipated demolition costs and whether the current funds will cover those costs.
As one way of estimating the cost, Transportation Secretary Joel Jundt used the estimated $4 million for demolishing the 1,700-foot Missouri River bridge between Pierre and Fort Pierre.
However, Meridian Bridge could carry different costs, Jundt said. Based on the $4 million estimate for the Pierre demolition, the state would need additional funding for Yankton beyond the current $3.2 million from the FWHA, he said.
“It goes back to the structure and the environmental part of it,” he said. “Down the road, how will it be handled? What will it take to physically bring (the Meridian Bridge) down and have the ideal demolition?”
Yankton’s history is tied to Meridian Bridge, according to Dave Mingo, community development director for the City of Yankton.
“If you walk around the community, you see private businesses, public entities and all different types of places that use the bridge as a trademark,” he said. “It does really serve as a defining image for our community.”
The Yankton region was excited that the Meridian Bridge remained alive with its new use, Mingo said. “The conversion of the Meridian Bridge really means a lot to the community,” he said, noting the current major use by people of all ages and from a wide area.
State and city officials are conducting the needed maintenance to ensure the bridge’s safety and hopefully prolong its life, Mingo said.
“When it was rehabbed in 2011, the 25 years (for its life expectancy) seemed so far away. But we’re already 10 years into it,” he said. “We’re very pleased with its functionality and the inspections that occur regularly. The state has coordinated inspections, and we appreciate that.”
The converted Meridian Bridge has added to the area quality of life, according to Mike Healy, chairman of the Transportation Committee for the Yankton Thrive organization.
With its double-decker feature, Meridian Bridge gives walkers and bikers a number of options based on their fitness levels, Healy said, noting he frequently walks the bridge.
Meridian Bridge stopped taking vehicle traffic in October 2008, and a retrofit project was let in January 2010 for $4.8 million, Smith said. A few changes were needed, bringing the total price tag to $5.658 million.
In April 2010, work began on repair and replacement, and the bridge re-opened to foot and bike traffic, Smith said. In November 2011, the 3,029-foot structure re-opened as the longest double-decker pedestrian trail connecting South Dakota and Nebraska, he added.
In 2015, the Meridian Bridge Plaza was added to the north end of the bridge, Smith said. The plaza includes a fountain, splash pad, benches, green space and river walk with sculptures. The “Music at the Meridian” series provides a number of local concerts during the summer.
In addition, Meridian Bridge provides direct access between a campground on the south end of the bridge and Yankton’s downtown Meridian District on the north end, Mingo said.
Meridian Bridge has played a role in the revitalization of the district, Mingo said.
“I think it’s a lot more than anybody would have imagined. The bridge has really helped with the downtown district involving public-private partnerships and investments in new businesses,” he said.
“Downtown has become more of an entertainment district with people going there more for experiences compared to the past when downtown was more of a retail sector. We still have those retail businesses to serve people’s needs, but we are seeing new downtown successes that have been really good for the community.”
Mingo anticipates serious discussions about the bridge’s future will begin in 10 years. In the meantime, city and state officials will continue the upkeep that will hopefully prolong the bridge well beyond 2036, he said.
“We hope that the bridge lasts much longer than 25 years,” he said. “It’s our identity, and we want to see it here for quite some time.”
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