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SD DOT switching to eight-year plan

PIERRE -- State highway planners don't think land speculators will benefit from expanding the development and construction process to eight years from the current five for major projects.

PIERRE -- State highway planners don't think land speculators will benefit from expanding the development and construction process to eight years from the current five for major projects.

After some give and take Thursday, members of the state Transportation Commission came around to endorsing the new, longer approach.

They agreed that eight years will be a long time for people to gamble on land going up in value just because the state Department of Transportation plans to make improvements along a route.

They also concluded that speculators face more risk because federal highway funding has become increasingly unpredictable.

Months-long extensions and a current two-year program have become the new normal in a Congress caught in its own forms of gridlock.

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DOT now will look at projects in two stages: Four years for development, including working with the public and getting clearances; and four years for the steps necessary to get to construction, such as utilities coordination.

About midway through that process will be acquisition of right of way for the project.

That will be several years sooner than the current process and will give more time if negotiations turn difficult, according to commission member Jerry Shoener of Rapid City.

Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said land speculation most often happened when a new highway was being planned, rather than along existing routes.

He said the majority of speculation on the proposed path for the new Highway 100 project at Sioux Falls took place in 2005, when the general plan was being set, and immediately after.

Work hasn't started yet, and those developers have faced significant holding costs in some cases, according to Bergquist.

Joel Gengler, who oversees the right of way program for DOT, said the department spends approximately $5 million to $10 million annually on property. He put that in the context of overall spending on road programs by DOT of about $360 million.

Several commissioners said the longer approach could benefit contractors in their planning and their equipment purchases, and DOT will have more projects moving through the process in case higher amounts of federal aid come from Congress.

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The eight-year approach is used in Oklahoma and has worked well, according to Mike Behm, assistant director of planning and engineering for DOT.

He said the Federal Highway Administration likes it too, although only a four-year process is federally required.

Behm said the credit for the change should go to Joel Jundt, the director for the planning and engineering division. "We're not going into uncharted territory," Behm said.

Commission member Mike McDowell said a 10-year project planning process is typical for the electricity industry, including for transmission routes. He is chief executive officer for Heartland Consumers Power District at Madison.

"I think it's smart," McDowell said about DOT's new approach.

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