'This is going to kill our small town': Wagner residents sound off on project to make Highway 46 a three-lane

·5 min read

Jul. 14—MITCHELL — The South Dakota Department of Transportation's plan to reconfigure a portion of Highway 46 stretching through Wagner into a three-lane road has sparked strong opposition among some Wagner residents.

During Wednesday's State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) meeting in Mitchell, about a dozen Wagner area residents pushed back on the SDDOT's Highway 46 project over concerns that centered around the negative economic impact it could have and traffic safety. The $17 million project calls for re-configuring the four-lane highway that extends through Wagner to Highway 37 into a three-lane equipped with a center-left turn lane.

Fears of the economic impact a switch from a four-lane to three-lane highway could have on the area were echoed by Wagner's Michele Juffer, who pointed to the road construction project as a move that would "kill our small town."

"Our road is a corridor of the river. We are looking to build our community and grow stronger in the future, and I feel like this is shooting us down," Juffer said during Wednesday's STIP meeting in Mitchell.

Mike Behm, the SDDOT's director of planning and engineering, said key reasons behind the three-lane switch are to improve pedestrian walkways and safety, alleviating drainage issues and repairing corroding conditions of the road's pavement. The project is estimated to begin in 2023.

According to Behm, the traffic data that DOT has examined indicated a three-lane highway "should be there." The 2019 average daily traffic count for the highway was 4,510 vehicles, and SDDOT data projects that count to reach nearly 7,000 by 2044.

"The conditions are in tough shape. There's also some drainage issues that's leading to deterioration. We looked at various options and had conversations on it. It's a tight section through town, and there are businesses very close to the road right now," Behm said. "The sidewalk right now is right next to the roadway. With a three-lane, we can separate that."

Since the DOT unveiled its plans for Highway 46 along the Wagner area, a growing number of residents and Wagner city officials have opposed the change to a three-lane road. A petition that's been circulating around the community has garnered around 1,500 signatures.

Kip Spotted Eagle, a

Wagner business owner,

voiced his concerns of the impact that the road construction project could have on his business situated along the stretch of Highway 46 planned to be reconstructed.

Spotted Eagle pressed DOT officials on whether there will be access points to his business during construction and how the DOT would help local businesses negatively affected by the project sustain throughout the duration of it.

"I'm very dependent on traffic coming through my drive-thru. Any blocking of access to traffic could put me out of business," Spotted Eagle said. "Have you considered those businesses that are deeply impacted and could be shut down because of the project? I'm going to put it on the state of South Dakota to take care of your small business owners."

While Behm noted the DOT will provide access to Spotted Eagle's business and other Wagner businesses, he said "it can be difficult" during the construction phase.

Spotted Eagle also urged the DOT to be cognizant of not disturbing sacred Native American historical sites while doing construction work near the Yankton Sioux Tribe, which is located next to Wagner.

Frank Kloucek, a Scotland resident who utilizes Highway 46, emphasized the project would impact the entire Wagner community for decades, calling it an "economic disaster waiting to happen."

"Wagner will be the new Yankton someday based on the lake and traffic patterns going out west. It will grow, and it needs to have a four-lane. You need to build for the future," Kloucek said during Wednesday's meeting. "This is a 30- to 40-year decision. The feelings of 1,500 people should not be forgiven. I know three people in Wagner who are in favor of this, so you can't say there is a groundswell of support."

Juffer also questioned why the DOT would make the change when traffic data shows there is a small number of crashes compared to similar roads in the state. According to DOT figures, there were 12 crashes reported on Highway 46 from 2015 to 2019, marking a crash rate of 1.16 per million vehicle miles of travel.

During the meeting, a Woonsocket resident offered a different perspective on three-lane highways after he adapted to a three-lane that was once a four-lane highway in the Woonsocket area years ago.

John Schmidt, of Woonsocket, said he grew to like the three-lane highway, especially during winter. He claimed the snow removal on the three-lane highway was much more efficient than the previous four-lane that stretched through Woonsocket.

"It really wasn't that bad. The main thing was in the winter time when you get heavy, wet snow and the city is fighting like heck to get the stuff moved. When you have a four-lane, you get these big clumps of snow that freeze and damage your car," Schmidt said. "But with a three-lane, there's actually room there to push the snow."

In response to Schmidt's comments in support of three-lane highways, Kloucek said the respective highway in the Woonsocket area does not experience the volume of traffic that Wagner's Highway 46 does.

"I've been through your town that needed to go three-lane because there is no traffic there," Kloucek said. "But there are 2 miles of businesses and homes in Wagner along the highway."

Juffer asked if the three-lane highway plan is concrete and whether the DOT will consider moving away from the three-lane if Wagner city officials and the city council requests the DOT to keep the four-lane in place.

Behm said the DOT will continue to discuss the project and listen to suggestions with Wagner officials and residents. He noted the South Dakota Transportation Commission will ultimately have the final say on the project.

"If we get a response back from the city saying they are in disagreement with our proposal, we will sit down and visit about a solution to move forward," Behm said.