July 20, 2010

Road construction: my investigative report

Spearfish writer Lorraine Collins is a regular contributor to the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper, and we're delighted that she shares her column with us for Black Hills Monitor. She's touched upon a wide range of topics, and this time she opines on the fine art of high-tech information about road construction. Here's her latest offering.

My brother-in-law from Montana was here recently for a few days and he asked, "So, is there road construction around Sturgis?" I said there is. He said, "I've been coming to South Dakota for 35 years and there has always been road construction around Sturgis."

Of course, I can't verify that statement without doing more research than the assertion warrants, but I know just how he feels. It's hard to believe how certain sections of I-90 seem to be subjected to construction and reconstruction year after year. This is the perception folks have around here. Road construction around Sturgis begins in the spring, is suspended for the Rally, and resumes until winter. Why does that particular section of the Interstate always need something done to it?

Well, it's probably not the exact same section of I-90 that gets torn up every spring, but it sure seems familiar to those of us who drive it year after year. There are so many problems with infrastructure maintenance and repair throughout South Dakota that it's hard to believe they keep tearing up that same stretch of the Interstate just to stay busy.

I was curious about how many road projects are ongoing on I-90 right now, so I went to a website called Safe Travel USA. The South Dakota Department of Transportation uses it to show a map informing us about road conditions, weather and construction, these being important things for travelers to know. This site also provides webcams at various places along the Interstate and other highways so viewers can actually see what the road and weather conditions are.

The problem was, when I went to the website and began counting the number of icons indicating construction sites from the Wyoming line to Minnesota, there were no construction sites mentioned west of Rapid City on I-90. There were 22 construction sites noted between mile markers 59 and 412, but what about those first 59 miles of I-90?

I thought, "Ah ha! This is a conspiracy!" Obviously, the government doesn't want the public to know that the highway around Sturgis is torn up again, because it's embarrassing to keep admitting that year after year. People might get suspicious and think that there's some hanky-panky going on. There's no sense letting the whole world know about our little secret. Folks who live in the area will know of it and they're used to it anyway. By the time a few hundred thousand bikers converge on the area, things will be tidied up as well as possible and all will be serene for a little while.

On the other hand, I thought that maybe construction activity around Sturgis is regarded as "normal" and therefore not worth mentioning. The DOT site does often mention "normal driving conditions", after all. If construction around Sturgis isn't normal, I don't know what is.

I decided to go to the webcam site near Sturgis. Two cameras mounted east of Sturgis looking both east and west revealed nothing of any interest. Then I went to the camera mounted west of Sturgis at mile point 28.6, looking west. There, in the distance, one could see a line of orange barrels. Proof!
The camera doesn't lie!

Since Safe Travel USA provides an opportunity for feedback, I sent an email, politely pointing out that the map of road construction doesn't show the four-mile stretch of orange barrels near Sturgis and asking why. A nice man answered that he appreciated my question and was checking with the SDDOT staff in Rapid City Area to find out. A few days later he emailed me to say that they had discovered there actually is an icon for the Sturgis construction on the map, but it is hidden by another one revealing construction on Highway 34,so we can't see it.

He was going to try to figure out how to correct the situation.

I suppose it doesn't matter much by now. The Rally will be here soon.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com.

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