U.S. judge rules for South Dakota in dispute with CRST chairman on speed limit through La Plant

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Court Gavel

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Transportation Commission agreed unanimously Thursday, after nearly two hours of discussion, to reduce the speed limit to 45 miles per hour on US 212 through the Dewey County community of La Plant and make the slower zone longer.

The change still needs clearance from the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee at its meeting on November 10. If that happens, the 45 mph zone would take effect no later than November 30. It would replace a shorter zone that currently is 55 mph. The speed limit outside the zone is 65 mph.

The commission Thursday also directed state Department of Transportation staff to consider other steps, such as radar-feedback signs, to help slow down motorists on US 212 while in La Plant.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe recently opened the Lakota Thrifty Mart Express on the south side of US 212 on the west end of La Plant. It is the only store in the community of 198. Pedestrians and bicyclists use the highway’s five-foot shoulders to go to and from the store. There is a housing development on the north side of US 212 at the east side of town.

The state commission’s moves came in the wake of a federal court ordering a preliminary injunction against Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier.

U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange on October 23 enjoined Chairman Frazier from directing any tribal agency or employee “from altering any signage that the State has posted on U.S. Highway 212 in or near La Plant or replacing such signage with any new signage, whether temporary or permanent, without the prior permission of the appropriate state authority.”

Judge Lange ruled that the federal government had granted the state government a right-of-way over Indian reservation land for the construction of US 212. “The highway is open to the public, and the State is responsible for maintaining the roadway,” Lange wrote. “Further, Congress has given the state transportation department the power of final approval of signage on federal highways.”

Chairman Frazier and Governor Kristi Noem have been at a stalemate over tribal traffic checkpoints for vehicles entering and leaving the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

Frazier has argued the checkpoints are necessary to reduce the chances of COVID-19 infecting people on the reservation. Noem has argued tribal officials don’t have the legal right to stop traffic on federal and state highways that run through the reservation.

The latest dispute came when the Cheyenne River tribal council voted 13-0 on July 14 for a resolution reducing the speed limit through La Plant to 45 mph from 55. On about August 31, tribal government employees removed the 55 mph signs and replaced them with 45 mph signs. This happened at least five times, according to the state government’s lawsuit.

The first time, tribal highway department employees put the 55 mph signs back up. After the four most-recent occasions, state DOT employees put 55 mph signs back up. Judge Lange addressed that dispute. “The public is certainly not served by a system where the speed limit is subject to frequent change and determined by whichever sovereign entity last changed out the sign,” he wrote.

The judge decided the tribal government had sovereign immunity but Frazier, in his official role as tribal chairman, didn’t have such protection. The judge said state government planned to hold a hearing on a lower speed limit and urged tribal officials to participate. “The public will be best served by a process where the State determines, with the Tribe’s input, a speed limit that protects both drivers and pedestrians alike in the area,” he wrote.

Neither the tribal chairman or any other tribal member sent written comments or spoke up during the state commission’s public hearing on the speed reduction Thursday.

Karla Engle, the state department’s chief lawyer, acknowledged Thursday there has been “a significant increase in pedestrian traffic” along US 212 since Lakota Thrifty Mart Express opened. Engle said the tribal chairman had made reference during his testimony to the federal judge about a 35 mph resolution, but she didn’t know why that resolution hadn’t been provided to the state department.

Christina Bennett, the state department’s operations traffic engineer, said a speed study Tuesday indicated traffic on US 212 through the 55 zone was averaging 58 mph.

Bennett’s report noted that 146 K-12 students are enrolled at the Tiospaye Topa school in La Plant that is also on the north side of US 212. Classes aren’t being held this fall because of COVID-19. She said school officials expect that children will travel along US 212 to reach the store when classes resume.

The state department recommended a 45 mph speed zone that would run farther west to include the access for the new store. Engle and Bennett said reducing to 35 mph from 65 mph would increase the chances of collisions because some motorists would follow the lower speed and others would continue to drive faster.

Engle said department engineers have suggested adding pedestrian-crossing warning signs for motorists. Bennett acknowledged that the department’s traffic signs aren’t being made at this time by state penitentiary inmates as they normally had been, because the Sioux Falls shop is shut down amid COVID-19 infections.

Commissioner Don Roby of Watertown called for the state panel to support the state department’s 45 mph recommendation. “The good news is there is a lot of common ground,” Roby said.

Commissioner Benj Stoick of Mobridge said he often travels through La Plant and suggested 35 mph, with 45 mph transition zones. He also suggested radar-feedback signs. Stoick said he was trying to avoid “an explosive political situation” if an accident occurred.

“I think this is a case where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Stoick said.

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