Getting the facts on the wheel tax

RAPID CITY, S.D. — On Tuesday, the Pennington County Board of Commissioners held the first reading of an ordinance that would increase the county’s wheel tax from $2 to $5. Reactions so far have been mixed.

In 2015, the South Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which raised excise tax from 3% to 4%. That extra 1% went into a Bridge Improvement Grant fund, and up until 2021, Pennington County didn’t receive a cent of that money — despite residents paying in. Disbursement from that grant program is only to counties with an implemented wheel tax — something Pennington County didn’t have until last year.

In 2021, the county passed a wheel tax at $2 per wheel, leaving only six counties in the state that don’t collect wheel tax. Pennington County Highway Department Superintendent Joe Miller says it still isn’t enough to meet the county’s road and bridge work needs.

“There’s 89 bridges that are needing replaced over the next 25 years,” Miller said. “With the current market and the current prices with the inflation, the fuel costs, you know, the county — with just a $2 wheel tax and the funding we do get…we don’t get any money from the General Fund. So there’s no money coming in from property tax.”

Miller says they’ve been operating about $2.5 million down each year since 2015, which equals a nearly $18 million deficit.


  • 44 bridges replaced between 1972 and 1974 due to the flood
  • 68 bridges are over 50 years old (the average lifespan of a bridge is 50 to 70 years)
  • 21 bridges are between 40 and 50 years old
  • 18 bridges are in poor condition (based on National Bridge Inspection Standards)
  • 22 bridges have posted load limits
  • 27 bridges across 13 roads are the only means of ingress and egress

And the cost to fix these bridges continues to rise — up an average of $250,000 since 2020.

“$750,000 times 89 bridges its 67…$66.7 million that it would cost right now,” Miller said.

A wheel tax increase to $5 would generate more than $3.5 million each year.

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Since the 2021 wheel tax was implemented, Pennington County has received more than $2 million in grant funding for bridge work, which Miller says they do as best they can despite a lack of manpower.

“The other problem is finding the contractors,” Miller said. “There’s not very many bridge contractors in the state of South Dakota, and there’s a lot of other counties and there’s a lot of other bridges in the state.”

Miller says the public should understand that improving — and maintaining — roads requires sustained funding.

“We want good roads to drive on. And having good roads to drive on, and good bridges to drive on, costs money,” Miller added.

The alternative, he says, is placing the total financial burden — millions of dollars a year — on the backs of Pennington County residents.

Categories: Local News, Politics & Elections, South Dakota News