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Butte County adopts 5-year road and bridge plan

October 11, 2018

BELLE FOURCHE –– The Butte County Commission approved its five-year road plan Oct. 2 and the county’s bridge outlook is growing evermore bleak.

Jason Hanson, with Brosz Engineering, the county’s contracted engineering firm, presented the plan to the commission and half-a-dozen community members who attended the meeting.

“It’s essentially the same plan you saw last year … with a few adjustments into some bridge priorities, but road priorities stayed pretty much the same,” Hanson said.

For the last three years, the county has participated in the Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG) program through the state of South Dakota for major rehabilitation and structure replacement.

To get a piece of the $9 million pie awarded annually for bridge and road repairs, counties are required to create and maintain a five-year road and bridge plan delineating proposed county road and bridge improvement plans.

According to a 2015 report, one in five of the county’s bridges is in dire need of repair or replacement and another 20 bridges are not far behind. In other words, of the county’s 100 bridge’s, half of them are in need of almost immediate attention.

With all 66 of the state’s counties competing for the same funding it makes it difficult for smaller counties, or counties with smaller budgets, to reel in funds, Commission Chairman Frank Walton said.

“We’ve got a lot of bridges, probably around 100,” Walton said. “There’s probably 30-some or better that are basically … deficient already.

“Bridges in general are running $400,000-$500,000 or more (to replace),” Walton said. “So it gets rather expensive when you’ve got a lot of bridges out there, especially that need a lot of work on them.”

Commissioner Kim Richards echoed Walton’s sentiments and added that the commission changed its tactics in the last year related to how it deals with the growing bridge issue.

“I think we (the commission) decided that we’re not going to see a big increase in budget, so we’re going to have to become more efficient,” he said. “And that’s where we’ve made changes in the highway department.”

“If we’re going to send that grader out to grade that road, we that operator to do the job correctly,” he said. “We’ve also decided with over 800-miles of road (in the county) and gravel costs are about $10,000 per mile, we can’t afford to just go out there and gravel all our roads, it’s just not efficient.”

In response, the commission looked at other options to improve road conditions for less money.

“We determined that there’s 50 years (worth) of gravel in the ditches (alongside the county’s gravel roads),” Richards said.

So the county purchased a disc that would mount to the front of the grader that would rake up some of the gravel lost to the ditch over the years.

“It’s a dirty process; the roads are bad for a while but then in turn, we’re seeing a great deal of improvement after the process is done,” Richards said. “We’re kind of committed to do that process along with bringing in new gravel.”

According to the road plan, 25 miles of graveling costing $242,989.50, is budgeted for in 2019.

In addition to the new process to reclaim some of the gravel lost alongside the county roads, Richards said, the county crews intend to work at shaping the roads appropriately to extend the life of the road.

“We’re trying to get our grader operators trained to do the job correctly. We’ve allotted them overtime so if the road conditions are right, we want them out there grading,” he said. “We feel we’ve got good equipment and we think that we can see some improvement in our roads with our present budget without spending a lot more money which we don’t have.”

The county is in a tough spot, Richards said.

“Our county is probably in worse shape of any county in the state with bridges,” Richards said. “But the bridge improvement grant program has not been set up to help us, it’s set for these big counties.”

“And they (the larger counties) can buy points basically,” Richards said. “We’ve applied every year and not ever received a bridge.”

The grants are allocated based on a points system that weighs the condition of the bridges, whether the county is charging the maximum wheel tax, and if the structures are heavily traveled, serving multiple locations, for example.

The more counties are willing to pay toward the project, the higher their score will be — sometimes a tough expense for smaller counties.

The points system doesn’t take into account how much money a county has on hand nor how many bridges it has that need work.

With the amount the state program has to disperse among so many needy counties, Butte County can’t possibly get caught up, Richards said.

“If we can’t depend on state funding, and we have a bridge go out that we have to have, we’re going to have to divert our money to get that fixed and figure out a way to do it,” he said. “The biggest thing is that I hear people say, ’I pay my taxes, I deserve better roads.”

But, what those people don’t understand, Richards said, is that only $75,000 of the $1.5 million annual highway budget is funded from property taxes.

“The rest is coming from state funding, license taxes, and those things,” he said.

In comparison, the county is spending about $500,000 on court appointed attorney’s fees and jail costs each year.

“So as these other costs in the county go up, the highway department gets squeezed because that’s the only place we can go to get that money,” he said. “So it’s really a challenge funding the highway department and we’re trying to be more efficient with our money.”

In 2019, Hanson said, an additional $6 million will be added to the state’s BIG program, bringing the total pie to $15 million.

The county’s 2019 plan involves preliminary engineering for two structures on Old Highway 85 and one on Snoma Road in addition to designing and permitting work on one structure on Orman Road and one on Snoma.

The county applied for two bridge replacement grants this year, one for Orman Road and one on Old Highway 212. Neither were awarded.

The county was granted two preliminary engineering grants in August 2017 for use in 2018.

In 2016, the county received two preliminary engineering grants, and in 2017, it received one.

To date, the county hasn’t received any bridge replacement grant monies that it has applied for.

The commission approved the plan and the highway department is required to send the approved plan to the state for approval by Dec. 15 as a first step in a grant application process to assist with funding the needs.

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