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Mitchell legislator hits the roads -- again

PIERRE -- Rather than make the public come to them, the Legislature's interim committee on highway needs and financing hits the road this month, hoping to hear directly from officials and business people across South Dakota.

The 15 lawmakers will fan out in sub-groups for a six-city schedule of hearings, with two meetings today and two more Wednesday.

They start in Yankton this morning (11 a.m. at the regional technical education center) and move to Sioux Falls this afternoon (4 p.m. at the Southeast Technical Institute's Sullivan Center).

Sen. Mike Vehle -- who in a recent radio interview came up with the phrase "You can't put a Band Aid on a pothole" -- is the interim committee's chairman. Vehle, R-Mitchell said Monday the seven senators and eight representatives would convene again Aug. 26 and 27 in Pierre to discuss the findings from the hearings, take testimony from highway users such as producers and truckers, and consider how to proceed.

"I'm just looking for the needs. I don't want to talk about any state or local funding source right off the bat," he said.

Vehle said he's leaving open the date for the panel's final meeting to as late in November as possible because of the uncertainty in the federal government.

The current federal highway program expires Sept. 30, the federal highway trust fund won't have enough money by summer's end to keep up with payments for projects already contracted, and Congress doesn't have solutions yet for either situation, he said.

Just 2 percent of the miles of South Dakota's state highways are in poor condition but 25 percent will be within 10 years if funding levels remain constant, according to the state Department of Transportation.

"That's going to create us a cliff situation. We have to start planning for that now before we get there," Vehle said.

At the county level, the demand is greater and more immediate, with 20 percent of the paved miles already failing and 19 percent in poor condition. For the county gravel miles the numbers are 9 percent failing and 17 percent poor.

Of 4,145 county bridges, 73 are closed and there are 1,045 officially rated by inspectors as deficient or posted for special weight restrictions. Less than 5 percent of state highway bridges have some deficiency.

Two reasons the state system is in relatively strong shape right now are that South Dakota received $183 million in federal stimulus aid for highway work and the state department was effective in putting the money to use, according to Vehle.

He said the challenge is that South Dakota's standard rate of motor-fuel tax at 22 cents per gallon, adopted in 1999, is worth 10.9 cents today when adjusted for inflation of road and bridge costs.

In the past decade, Vehle, the Senate Transportation Committee's chairman, tried to convince the Legislature several times about the need for funding increases. He received no support from then-Gov. Mike Rounds.

Legislators overrode a veto by current Gov. Dennis Daugaard three years ago to adopt a series of increases in license plate fees that then-Rep. Steve Street, D-Revillo, sponsored.

Daugaard recently said he is now willing to consider funding increases.

The Wednesday hearings are set for Watertown (11 a.m. at Lake Area Technical Institute's student services center) and Aberdeen (4 p.m. at Ramada conference center).

They head west later in the month for the final two hearings July 23 at Belle Fourche (11 a.m. at the community center) and at Rapid City (4 p.m. at the School of Mines and Technology's Classroom Building).