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Watertown Public Opinion, Watertown, Nov. 13, 2014
Opportunity is there to upgrade rail system
South Dakota has always been something of a stepchild when it comes to railroads.
When they initially pushed into the region, the main lines went through North Dakota to the north and Nebraska to the south. Feeder lines from those main lines were extended into South Dakota to provide rail transportation here. When it came to repairs and improvements, however, the railroads first priorities were the main lines because that's where the heaviest traffic was and as a result the most money to be made.
South Dakota railroads today operate just 1,800 miles of a network that once featured more than 4,200 miles. That means 57 percent of the railroad infrastructure in our state has been lost since the 1920s when railroads here were at their peak. But maybe that's changing.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was in South Dakota this week and on Tuesday he rode over sections of rail track that had previously been repaired with federal help. He also rode over portions that haven't been regularly used for years and found out first hand just how bad they are.
The hope factor comes from about 42 miles of mostly derelict tracks from Chamberlain to Presho that will soon be restored with the help of a roughly $12 million federal grant. That stretch is important because rehabbing it will open up grain-shipping opportunities for farmers in south-central South Dakota who currently must use trucks to transport their grain to faraway railways.
There are more pluses in South Dakota's corner when it comes to improved rail potential. In addition to the recently repaired line and scheduled Chamberlain to Presho work there's also a Wheat Growers $38.9 million grain shuttle facility being built in Kennebec that should be ready for business in 2016. That was only made possible by the upgrades to the rail network.
But perhaps the best news for South Dakota is that U.S. Sen. John Thune will head the Senate committee that addresses transportation matters when Republicans assume control of the chamber next year. That means South Dakota will have a front row seat when it comes to pushing matters like improved rail traffic in rural states, South Dakota included.
There's a lot to like about the possibility of South Dakota's long-ignored rail system seeing significant improvements. First, the improved Chamberlain to Presho line means farmers can save up to a quarter per bushel on shipping by rail as opposed to truck. In addition the improved line is expected to open up new markets because of connections to regional rail hubs when the repairs are finished. Plus, every shipment that is moved via rail means there is less truck traffic, and less wear and tear, on the state's roads and bridges. That means less money needed to repair those roads and bridges because of the damage caused by heavy truck traffic.
Now imagine how all that could play out if this was just the first of many projects to improve South Dakota's rail system. Imagine the increase in rail traffic. Imagine the new and/or upgraded elevators that might be built to handle the increased amounts of grain being moved by rail. Imagine the increased profits for farmers who save money by shipping by rail and the new markets opened to them. And imagine the impact all of this could have on rural South Dakota and the entire state in the form of new jobs, new profits and new opportunities.
Imagine how all that might play out if Thune can make a convincing dollar and cents argument in the Republican controlled Congress that spending money to upgrade South Dakota's rail line can also lead to making money for farmers and rural areas while saving money for Washington by easing the demand to repairing roads and bridges.
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen but the opportunity is there and Thune is in a position to help make it happen.
Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Nov. 8, 2014
City should have painted over snowplows
When a Sioux Falls resident challenged the use of religious art work on city snowplow blades, city leaders should have agreed to paint over the messages.
The constitutional arguments aside, it would have demonstrated that as this city grows, we will work to be inclusive, not endorsing one belief system or approach over another.
Deciding instead to add disclaimer signs to the plows could end up heaping one mistake on top of another.
The city's five-year-old "Paint the Plows" program allows students to decorate snowplow blades. It is an exceptional way to showcase our schools' fine arts programs, and it gives young people a unique canvas on which to display their talents.
Over the years, the designs have been eye-catching and creative.
This year, a member of the Siouxland Freethinkers objected to religious-themed messages adorning a pair of plows. The artwork was prepared by Sioux Falls Lutheran School students.
The complaint is that such a display on publicly owned equipment amounts to an endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment's "establishment clause," prohibiting government from establishing a favored religion or promoting one religion over another.
We think the concern is legitimate and agree the city should not take it lightly.
But the decision to not just paint over the blades drags more questions into the discussion than necessary. There's no guarantee this step will fend off a potential lawsuit challenge, and we shouldn't be waiting to find out.
Obviously, there should have been clearer guidelines on the types of messages that would be acceptable for the art project in the first place. Someone in the city should be assigned to review the artwork before it's put on public equipment for public display anyway.
Would there be no oversight to what community groups might paint on park benches or city streets during a beautification project? Or on city buses, for that matter?
We trust the city is working to clarify the parameters of this project to avoid future problems.
But recognizing this unique conflict and removing the religious messages would not have meant denying the Christian beliefs displayed.
It would have reinforced the notion that governments can't favor one religion or belief set over another.
Sioux Falls Lutheran School's assistant principal Sarah Sailer said expressing faith is part of the lesson plan at the school. Understandably so. But she added that students also "are taught to respect other people's opinions."
That is exactly the goal we all should strive to achieve.
Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, Nov. 9, 2014
Fix election problems now to keep integrity
Anyone with knowledge of the logistics of holding a modern election knows it's far more complicated than just counting check marks in boxes.
In reality, it's no simple feat, requiring voters to register in advance, demanding that poll workers understand and implement proper procedures, and that voters then fill in their ballots correctly (you'd be surprised how often voters make silly errors.)
Sometimes, things go wrong in the process. For multiple examples, look no further than Florida, which is infamous not only for the "hanging chads" that left the 2000 presidential election hanging in the balance, but also for a failed experiment in touch-screen voting. In some cases, touch-screens malfunctioned, so people had no idea which race they were actually voting in.
After the 2000s, election officials in that state moved away from paper-punch ballots and the touch-screen voting that were a dismal failure. After the mistakes, it was clear that voters had lost faith in the voting process, and something needed to be done, and improvements ultimately were made.
No one is asserting that the mix-ups in South Dakota on Election Day come close to creating that level of uncertainty or loss of voter confidence.
And yet, when two poll workers arrived late in Shannon County, it stalled voting there and subsequently all state results were delayed by an hour. Results came late in the state's two most-populous counties — in Minnehaha by half a day, and in Pennington by about two hours — due to difficulty with new, more sensitive ballot machines that cost $100,000 each.
Pennington County Auditor Julie Pearson last week candidly acknowledged the errors that were made, and promised that she and her staff have fixed the problems. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Jason Gant said that he and local auditors will discuss the issues to be sure the mistakes are not repeated.
That's good news, and we compliment election officials for being up front and honest about the troubles — really the only way to begin a process of improvement.
And we urge more training, and more testing, to be sure that everyone in the process knows their role and conducts themselves with integrity. Few things are more important that holding free and fair elections. While voters may excuse one set of mishaps, it won't take many more mistakes before confidence in the election process wanes.
Those votes, of course, empower our elected officials by way of the understanding that they truly were backed by the electorate, and not appointed through default or by more sinister means. And that sense of trust we place in them not only allows them to make policy on our behalf, but gives us as voters the right to cast them from office if they prove unworthy of our faith.