PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Department of Transportation spent a lot more than planned this past winter getting the interstates and state highways clear of snow and ice.
About 75% more, Secretary Joel Jundt told the state Transportation Commission on Thursday.
“It was a long and harsh winter,” he said.
The department’s winter maintenance budget was $20.5 million. That was later amended to $33.5 million. As of this week, the department has spent about $36.3 million.
Jundt said that doesn’t include off-season costs such as replenishing salt and restocking plow blades.
The two previous winters saw DOT maintenance crews cover about 1.4 million miles and use about 540,000 gallons of diesel fuel. This winter, they totaled 3.2 million miles and used about one million gallons. The department’s man-hours more than doubled to 178,000.
Jundt said the biggest issue came when storms shut I-90 and I-29. The closures pushed motorists onto state and county roads that were impassable as well, and many vehicles became stuck, requiring rescues in dangerous conditions.
It was one of the issues raised during an end-of-season discussion among representatives from the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, state Department of Public Safety and DOT.
“That definitely came out during our meeting. We’re looking at ways to resolve some of that,” Jundt said.
DOT staff have been in contact with Google and others whose apps have erroneously suggested that alternative routes were open. There’s also the simple question of getting drivers to change their behavior and accept the advice to stay home until the roads are clear.
“The key is, how do we get people to take our messages seriously as well as what HP is doing out there,” Jundt said. He recounted the story of a couple out of gas, their cell phone dead, their vehicle’s battery dead, trapped along the road during a pre-Christmas blizzard. “We had countless stories like that. I hope we don’t have those next year,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Vehle of Mitchell recalled seeing a photo of a multi-vehicle crash that occurred on I-90 in his area during a storm this past winter. “When you see a picture of that pile up, you say, Maybe I won’t try it,” Vehle said.
But Jundt noted that DOT’s road-view cameras were both “a blessing and a curse,” because a clear scene at a location doesn’t reveal the trouble spots ahead such as a blown-shut underpass. He said some interstate exchanges don’t have road-closed gates and trucks got stuck.
Commissioner Bruce Cull of Yankton asked whether the department has any data about people who go around road closures. Jundt said it was the observation from the sheriff’s association that “A lot of the folks are out of staters.” He added, “You got tee shirts and flip flops in a blizzard.”
Commissioner Kathy Zander of Pierre said she thought DOT’s 511 messaging increased as the winter deepened. Jundt said Nebraska messages that secondary roads are closed, but he’s concerned that people will move onto county roads.
Commission chair Jafar Karim of Rapid City said that in his opinion the DOT did an “excellent job” in messaging and clearing roads. “I really appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” Karim said.
Jundt said that despite DOT’s efforts to spread the message that people should check 511 before deciding whether to travel, a lot of people still don’t use it or aren’t aware of it.
Commission Ron Rosenboom of Sturgis suggested that perhaps the state Department of Public Safety could add a 511 piece to driver training courses. Vehle then led the commission in a round of applause for DOT’s efforts.