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Roughly $1.9 million collected in 2016 from overloaded truck fines

'Tis the season for spring weight limits on South Dakota roads, but the fines collected from overweight trucks is minimal compared to the cost of repairs.

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'Tis the season for spring weight limits on South Dakota roads, but the fines collected from overweight trucks is minimal compared to the cost of repairs.

Always on the lookout for rulebreakers cracking pavement and inducing potholes on South Dakota's roads, a fleet of white vans emblazoned with the state's Motor Carrier Division logo helped net $522,794.58 more in fines on overloaded trucks in 2016 than 2015. But according to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, only $6,957,749.60 has been collected from 2012 to 2016 - a total hardly eclipsing the last two annual Davison County Highway Department budgets alone.

While it's often the overloaded truck drivers causing the damage on old asphalt roads where weight limits are posted, it's their fellow taxpayers on the hook for repair costs. In Davison County - one of many counties where spring weight limits are tacked onto roads to avoid additional damage caused by spring moisture - just $81,020 was collected in overweight fines from 2012 to 2016, barely eclipsing the expense solely for patch mix to mend the county's roads in 2016. And the only money returned to the county general fund for the fines is the cost penalty per pound overweight, while the initial $170 fine goes to school districts and state funds.

The fines, however, are more of a reminder than a method to recoup costs for damaged roads in the eyes of Davison County Commission Chair Brenda Bode.

"The fine isn't really even to be anything that's going to repair," said Bode. "It's just to try to remind people not to overload and not to be abusive to roads, it's not to recoup the expense."

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Bode, a partner in a family farm in rural Davison County, also said local farmers hauling agricultural commodities are careful not to damage the roads, seeing as they need the roads at peak quality just like everyone else.

But Bode acknowledged there will always be some violators.

"Is there somebody who overloads? Yes. Are there people who speed? You bet," Bode said.

But catching those overloading their truck can be challenging with seven mobile Motor Carrier Services teams deployed across the state.

Capt. John Broers, district commander of the S.D. Motor Carrier Services, said spotting lawbreakers is "way simpler than you think." What's harder is catching people in the act of breaking the law in the many rural areas of the state where there's not a lot of truck traffic. With that in mind, Broers said the division focuses on efficiency and targets point of entries to the state in counties like Minnehaha, Meade and Roberts.

"If you go to a lake and there's only one fish in that pond to see if he's big enough to keep, so to speak, you're probably not going to go fishing in that lake," Broers said. "You're going to go to the lake where there's a whole bunch of fish."

And fish they did.

The division nabbed $1,932,088.88 worth of fines in 2016 compared to $1,409,294.30 in 2015, with a hefty portion of fines collected at a bridge off Interstate 90 in Humboldt. In the effort to protect a vulnerable bridge in Humboldt, a state-high $503,757.30 in fines were collected in Minnehaha County. Broers also said the division has been able to dedicate more staff to enforce weight limits on South Dakota roads and highways, contributing to the increase.

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Fine totals in the 17 counties in The Daily Republic's coverage area couldn't crack the top 10 in collections in the last five years, with Davison County coming in at 17th highest and Tripp County weighing in at 18th highest in total collections.

Despite Davison County not cracking the top 10 in fines collected, Bode wasn't sold on the idea that more monitoring or higher fines would rake in enough cash to both return some to the county and cover the costs of more staff dedicated to enforcement.

"I don't know if it would offset all of the expense you'd have of trying to be in the right place to catch those," Bode said. "It'd be like chasing your tail.

Protecting the investment

While it's more challenging to monitor rural areas of the state like south-central South Dakota, Broers said the division does everything it can protect the investment in infrastructure.

"It's a significant impact and we're doing our best to help protect that infrastructure that costs literally everybody in South Dakota," Broers said. "Even if you don't drive a truck, you're still paying those taxes in one form or another that goes back into repairing these roads."

To achieve the difficult task of preserving state and county roads, Broers said the mobile teams are deployed to crack down on possible violators, informing a nearby state Highway Patrol trooper when they've spotted a possibly overloaded truck. And Broers said an overloaded truck, particularly a "grossly overweight" truck, can have a huge impact on pavement.

Broers said trucks do damage when the pavement surface flexes underneath the tires, causing cracks that let moisture in and erodes the ground beneath. This can cause an entire stretch of road to begin "crackling," bubbling up or create potholes.

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It's not just the trucks overloaded by 10,000 pounds or more that do damage, Broers said, with a large group of slightly overweight trucks causing similar damage.

"It's kind of a horse apiece as far as my understanding of it," Broers said.

With that in mind, Broers said the division has undergone a decades-long education effort, slowly trying to inform anyone who will listen about the damage driving an overloaded truck has on the pavement surface. For those who are trying to follow the law but overload their truck anyway, Broers noted there's what he called an "oops factor" that offers a slight tolerance for particular items being hauled like agricultural commodities or garbage.

"We encourage folks to load to the legal limit, and then that five or ten percent, that's for mistakes," Broers said.

Broers did acknowledge that long-time truck drivers would notice if their truck was 10,000 pounds overloaded, and Bode agreed.

Habitual overloading is not only bad for roads, Bode said, but bad for a truck, not to mention her opinion that most farmers don't want to "wreck the road."

"When you overload your truck, it's hard on your truck," Bode said. "It's like me telling you when you come with your little car, 'I want you to haul cement blocks in your car out to my farm.' Well, your car's not made for that."

An area outlier

While the more highly populated Davison County isn't seeing too many fines for overweight trucks, its neighbor to the west is seeing fewer.

Aurora County saw just $700 in overweight fines over a five-year period, the lowest in the region and seventh lowest in the state.

Doug Vissia, the Aurora County Highway Department superintendent, said state agencies might be busy monitoring bigger counties. Or maybe, Vissia said, it's because Aurora County haulers aren't a rulebreaking bunch.

"I would say that the lack of monitoring is probably some of it, but the local truck traffic is pretty good about it," Vissia said.

According to Vissia, a county gravel hauler is careful to put only one scoop of gravel in the truck per trip, and some asphalt roads in the county have been switched back to gravel, eliminating the need for weight limits. And even if there are lawbreakers in Aurora among the low truck traffic, Vissia wondered how likely it is they even get caught.

Vissia said it would like be coincidental that a hauler gets caught in Aurora, adding that most farmers are careful to haul corn on gravel roads at this time of year. And Vissia pointed out that it's not just semi drivers who can do damage to a road.

"You know, this time of the year, even some of your smaller vehicles - just trailers with skid loaders and stuff - can be kind of hard on them if we get a frost coming out and the roads get soft," Vissia said. "And if there's a lot of traffic on it, it'll just beat it out."

If counties like Aurora's ability to avoid overweight fines is due to a conscious effort from area haulers, Broers said it would be a "great day."

"We don't ever want to write anybody a ticket," Broers said. "If we never wrote a ticket, that would be perfect because everybody was loading to the legal limits and not exceeding those."

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