By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – While the book on the ‘Chilson Bridge Saga’ is still a few years from being closed, at least now the vast majority of county residents, county commissioners and state officials are on the same page and in agreement with a preferred ending to the story.
In a vote of ‘four to one’ at their regular meeting on June 7, the Fall River County Commissioners agreed to move forward with a plan to build a new bridge to replace the now closed Chilson Bridge, which spans the Mickelson Trail along Old Highway 18 between Hot Springs and Edgemont. The original structure was condemned last summer due to safety concerns caused by its disrepair. The county’s most recent determination reverses a decision from earlier this year when the county and state went into an agreement to share the cost of an at-grade crossing through the canyon.
The reversed decision actually swings the pendulum back to the county’s original plan from late last year to build a new bridge, prior to the federal government pulling their funding on the bridge project due to their determination that the bridge serves too few residents. The county and state however disagreed with that notion and thus formulated a plan to build an at-grade crossing instead of a bridge. At the time, that decision was made due to the long-term costs of the at-grade crossing being less than a bridge, despite the construction phase costs being essentially the same.
With several Chilson Bridge area residents in attendance at the June 7 meeting, Doug Kinniburgh with the S.D. Department of Transportation was on hand and confirmed that both the at-grade crossing and the bridge each had a price tag of approximately $1.2 million, with the state paying 80 percent of that, and the county the other 20 percent. He said the state had proposed the at-grade crossing concept because the bridge’s long-term and ongoing inspections, plus 100-year replacement cost of a bridge, was considerably higher than a road.
“You’re not going to find too many people here concerned about the 100-year replacement costs of the bridge,” Commission Chair Joe Falkenburg told Kinniburgh.
While he agreed, Kinniburgh told Falkenburg that it was still the commission’s responsibility to make decisions in the county’s best interests and for future commissioners.
One of the major drawbacks of the at-grade crossing however was that state and county could be in for a long legal battle with a nearby landowner as the state would need to acquire private property through eminent domain in order to build a new road. With the construction of a bridge, most all of the legal issues would likely be avoided.
With the exception of one audience member, all Chilson Bridge area residents who spoke during the meeting were in strong support of the bridge concept instead of the at-grade crossing, including Lyle Rudloff who could be credited for being the one who pushed the pendulum back in the direction of the bridge concept after he pressured the county into reconsidering it at their May 1 regular meeting.
The lone resident who expressed disfavor towards the idea was Linda Murdoch, who was opposed to the county and state spending any tax payer money on the project and was in support of keeping the highway closed. She however said, if it was determined that something had to be done, she would rather see a bridge instead of the road. It is with her family whom the state would need to acquire the land in which to build the aforementioned at-grade crossing.
Commissioner Paul Nabholz was the lone member of the commission who also opposed the new bridge plan. He said that it was a “lightly used bridge” and that it would “be nuts to pay the ongoing costs of a bridge.” His preferred solution to the situation was not to take away access for travelers but to build a lower maintenance, lower cost road around the area, through private property. Nabholz was ultimately the only dissenting commissioner vote for the bridge construction, with Joe Allen, Ann Abbott, Deb Russell and Falkenburg all voting in favor of the bridge following the overwhelming support of the concept from area residents.
“We’ll refer to this meeting in the future if there is ever any questions,” Falkenburg stated.
A significant drawback to the commissioners reversal on the plan is that it will add additional time to the completion of the project. With the at-grade crossing, it was expected to be done by the end of 2020. A completion date of the bridge is not in writing, but Kinniburgh said it would likely be later.
One positive however is that since a bridge was the original direction, its design had already been started by the engineers.