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Locals voice concerns about state sign project in Butte County

March 2, 2019

BUTTE COUNTY –– Butte County residents have been flooding the county highway department phone lines in recent weeks with complaints about the road sign replacement project currently underway on various county roads. Concerns include safety, access, and necessity, among others.

Matt Church, the project engineer for the sign project, based out of the Belle Fourche Department of Transportation (DOT) office, told the Pioneer Thursday that the project, which began in December, consists of the replacement of every road sign on county roads. That includes everything from delineators and speed limit signs to stop signs, and culvert and cattle guard markers to road name signs.

The Butte County project entails some 20,000 signs, running the state just under $1.5 million. The project’s expected completion date is September.

The statewide project is funded by the state DOT and the signs are engineered and installed to federal standards.

Chairman Kim Richards explained during Tuesday’s county commission meeting that the project has been ongoing around the Northern Hills area for a couple of years, including Meade and Lawrence counties. He said the DOT administers the program and hires subcontractors who install the signage.

The work in Butte County is in its initial stage, Richards said, beginning with chevron signs and then will move onto other types of signs. Chevron road signs show the edge of the road or a curve with a reflective feature.

Richards said that some of the concerns voiced about the project include that there are signs being put in places that signs were never located and that many signs are grouped together in a small area of road, potentially causing hazardous driving conditions. Additionally, another concern is that the signs are too near the roadway, causing more hazards.

Richards told the commission and members of the public present at Tuesday’s meeting that representatives from the county met Monday with the DOT, Jason Hanson, with Brosz Engineering, the county’s contracted engineering firm, and the contractor involved with the project to discuss some of the concerns. During the discussion, Richards said, he learned that the federal standard requires the chevron signs to be six feet from the edge of the roadway.

“The problem we are encountering is that the edge of the road is … hard to really (identify),” he said.

The county highway department regularly blades and reshapes gravel roads to salvage gravel lost to the ditch over the years and to create a crowned roadway to assist with drainage. Through this process, Richards said, the edge of the road is brought in from the ditch about two feet or so, and as the road settles, the edge will return to its normal position. So, if a sign is installed at what is considered the six-foot mark after the road was recently pulled, it will not be considered compliant to the specs by the time the roadway settles.

“We pointed out several areas where … we feel they are too close, and there’s a lot of concern about trucks getting past in a curve,” Richards said of the meeting with the various entities involved with the project.

Richards said the consensus from the meeting was that the county, DOT, and contractor will get together and look at the areas of concern and determine, “if maybe the contractor on these signs didn’t find the edge of the road, or if they put them in wrong, and then they’ll change them. This is built to state specs, and they’ve got to be done right.”

He explained the required specs related to the installation of the chevron directional signs.

“They have to be six feet from the edge of the road, and when you’re going into that curve, you’ve got to be able to see three signs, and that’s what dictates how far apart they are,” Richards said. “So the steeper the curve, the closer they are.”

“They’re going to cause a wreck out there instead of deterring one,” Bruce Crago, a county resident, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The project is slated to save the county time and money.

“I believe it’s like a million bucks (worth of work and signs),” Richards said. “So it’d be foolish not to (allow the state to do the job). Because they could come in and make you change all your signs anyway.”

The project, however, could have been made better known to the public in advance, he said.

“We (the county) didn’t even know that they were doing it until they were out there doing it,” Richards said.

Richards said the meeting with the DOT was helpful.

“We see it as an issue, and I think DOT is recognizing that also,” Richards said.

Richards said one of the downfalls could be that a decent amount of judgment calls are left to the contractor installing the signs, as they are the person who decides where the edge of the road is, and therefore, where the sign should be placed.

“They’re doing it to federal standards,” he said.

There are signs being installed where signs were never located before. The reason for that, Richards said, is because the project has been engineered to meet ever-evolving federal standards.

Colby Crago, another resident, told the commission that some aspects of the project are counter-intuitive and directly impairing local ranchers’ ability to access their land.

“They’ve got them (signs) in places where we’ve pulled off the road for 20 years,” Colby Crago said. “Now I’m going to mow them over if I pull off the road there now. Getting down to pasture spots and getting into gates, they’ve put signs in … there’s no way (for ranchers to access the pastures and gates the way they typically do). And (the signs) block my access to my private property off an approach.”

Richards said the contracted workers have their instructions but that he thinks they’ve interpreted the edge of the road incorrectly.

Colby Crago agreed.

“They’re not even sharp corners (where some of the chevron signs have been installed) … they’ve got 15 of them on this side, 10 of them on this side, 15 of them on this side. That right there is going to be solid signs on both sides of the road,” Colby Crago said. He continued to say that there would be no way two trucks hauling hay or livestock could meet at the point of the road.

Additionally, Bruce Crago said if the signs remain in location and number, it will be next to impossible for county staff to mow the ditches in the spring and summer.

The county is responsible to maintain the signs after they’re installed, and 67 of those newly installed signs have to be replaced due to vandalism in recent weeks.

On Jan. 28, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office was notified that several road signs in the Rehorst Road area had been damaged. A number of the signs were less that a week old.

Of the 67 road signs that sustained damage, 33 had recently been installed. Several different caliber firearms, including a shotgun, .22, and a larger caliber firearm, caused the damage. The damage is estimated to be approximately $6,000, making the crime a Class 4 felony.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office is requesting the public’s help to identify the vandal or vandals in this case. The sheriff’s office asked that anyone with information contact the Butte County Sheriff’s Office at 892-3324.

“Butte County taxpayers have to pay for them, and they have to be fixed,” Commissioner Karrol Herman said.

Richards said he expects the contractor to address the issue in conjunction with the DOT, and he hopes the sign placement concerns will be resolved in the coming weeks.

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