South Dakota Preparing for Highway 385 Project in the Black Hills

The Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Source : Unsplash

January 11, 2024

Author : Patty Allen

The Hill City School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Blake Gardner, is proactively preparing for substantial disruptions in student and staff transportation due to the extensive $72 million reconstruction of U.S. 385, the primary north-south artery in the central Black Hills. Starting in spring 2024 and concluding in winter 2026, this three-year project aims to rebuild 15 miles of the highway and will necessitate five complete closures of this crucial two-lane route.

U.S. 385 is a scenic yet hazardous road known for its winding path through picturesque landscapes of lakes, rock formations, and ridges. It is also notorious for a high rate of accidents and fatalities. It's a vital link connecting Custer State Park to the gambling hub of Deadwood and serves as the lifeline for the Black Hills travel network. 

This highway is also key to accessing popular tourist destinations like Pactola Reservoir, Sheridan Lake, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Crazy Horse Memorial. It plays a significant role in the region's tourism industry, which generated $2 billion in revenue for South Dakota in 2021.

As per the latest information, from May to July 2024 and again from October 2025 to April 2026, the highway near Pactola will be closed. The Pactola boat docks and harbor will be harder to reach during those times. Roads near Sheridan Lake will be closed from April to June 2025 and from August to October 2025. Some roads will be opened for the holiday, weekend, and Sturgis event.

Superintendent Gardner and millions who live, work, or visit the central Black Hills acknowledge the impending challenges posed by the construction. Gardner emphasizes the project as a "necessary inconvenience," vital for safety but disruptive in the short term. 

In response, the district is considering adjustments to the academic calendar for one or two years to mitigate the impact of longer school bus routes, which could add an hour to daily travel for around 30 students and several staff members.

The project's scope includes widening road shoulders, smoothing sharp curves, and installing turn lanes to enhance safety. The South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) will undertake extensive work, including tree clearance, rock blasting, and partial or complete road closures at various stages. Traffic disruptions have already begun, with tree-clearing activities commencing in November.

The highway's crash rate, more than double the state average, has been a significant concern. The DOT aims to halve this rate by addressing structural issues like tight curves and limited shoulder space.

Rich Zacher, Custer area engineer for the DOT, emphasizes the project's focus on safety for residents, commuters, and tourists. However, the project has raised concerns among local business owners. Wes Shelton of the Educational Travel Institute of America and Nancy Evangelisto, who operates the Summer Creek Inn, express apprehensions about the project's impact on tourism and local businesses. They criticize the state's communication efforts and the planning of the construction phases.

In response, the DOT has developed a dedicated website and conducted workshops to inform and involve stakeholders, including emergency service providers and tourism groups. Michelle Thompson, CEO of the Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association, and Dory Hanson, executive director of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, acknowledge the DOT's efforts to disseminate information and believe the tourism industry can adapt to these challenges.

The Pennington County Sheriff's Office, led by Sheriff Brian Mueller, is also preparing to ensure uninterrupted emergency services during the construction period. Sheriff Mueller emphasizes their involvement in the project planning to maintain emergency access, particularly to Pactola and Sheridan lakes.

Overall, while the reconstruction of U.S. 385 is recognized as crucial for the region's safety and long-term benefit, it presents immediate challenges for the local community, businesses, and tourists. The project's success will depend on effective communication, stakeholder involvement, and strategic planning to minimize disruptions while enhancing the safety and functionality of this vital transportation corridor.

Category : Tribally Designated Entity Investment in Infrastructure Freeways and Highways

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