Engineer Retiring from South Dakota DOT After 43 Years

"I've been at this job so long that I outlived some of the concrete on our highway projects," joked Ron Peterson.

📅   Fri June 05, 2015 - West Edition
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Image courtesy of the Yankton Press Daily Press and Dakotan. Peterson retires June 8 as area engineer in the Yankton office of the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT). He has spent his entire 43-year career with the DOT, serving at the Yankton
Image courtesy of the Yankton Press Daily Press and Dakotan. Peterson retires June 8 as area engineer in the Yankton office of the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT). He has spent his entire 43-year career with the DOT, serving at the Yankton

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - When it comes to his highway career, Ron Peterson has gone the extra mile, so to speak.

Peterson retires June 8 as area engineer in the Yankton office of the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT). He has spent his entire 43-year career with the DOT, serving at the Yankton office since spring 1973.

”I’ve been at this job so long that I outlived some of the concrete (on our highway projects),’ he joked. ”You know you’re getting old when you outlive concrete.’

Peterson has dealt with dramatic events during his career. He worked with the Missouri River flood of 2011 which affected multiple states throughout the basin. He also worked with the Big Sioux River flood of 2014 which closed Interstate 29 at Sioux City.

”It’s not something you see often in a highway career, and they were challenges for the staff,’ he said.

The two floods brought very different scenarios, he said.

The 2011 flood brought challenges in moving traffic in and out of flooded areas, transporting dirt for levees and working with multiple states. The 2014 flood required the I-29 closure because of needed work on the interstate highway, in turn re-routing traffic through Iowa and Nebraska.

”The 2014 flood was more of a challenge because (the water) all came in two days,’ he said. ”In 2011, the river rose slower and we had more time to deal with it.’

On the other hand, Peterson worked with a trio of historic experiences producing a more pleasant outcome. ”We worked with three new bridges on the Missouri River, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ he said.

The first two bridges linked Running Water with Niobrara, Nebraska, and Vermillion with Newcastle, Nebraska. The third structure, the Discovery Bridge at Yankton, replaced the 1924 Meridian Bridge.

For good measure, Peterson also worked with the conversion of the double-decker Meridian Bridge into a pedestrian bridge.

In addition, he has worked with an overlay, reconstruction and resurface of the 600 miles of highway at least once -- and some areas three times. During his tenure, the DOT rebuilt I-29 from Sioux City to Beresford.

Peterson isn’t the only engineer leaving the DOT ranks in the coming days.

”We have 12 area engineers, so we call them the Dirty Dozen,’ he joked. ”Three of us are leaving June 8, from Watertown, Huron and Yankton, with (a combined) 110 years of service.’

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South Dakota Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist has worked with Peterson since first joining the SDDOT nearly 17 years ago, and he said the Yankton engineer will definitely be missed.

”Ron is one of those guys that you just love to work with, because no matter what was needed or needed to be done, Ron just made it happen without complaint,’ Bergquist told the Yankton Press and Dakotan (http://bit.ly/1cy9xs8 ). ”He was also the type of guy that didn’t hesitate to go `above and beyond’ when needed, as evidenced by all the time and effort he and his staff put in to deal with the flooding, just as an example.’

In addition, Peterson’s personality enabled him to excel as an area engineer, Bergquist said.

”Ron was able to effectively communicate and develop strong working relationships with all the various groups he interacted with,’ the secretary said.

Those groups, Bergquist said, included Peterson’s engineering, maintenance and administrative staff; consultants and contractors; all those he worked with within the Department of Transportation; local government entities; and citizens and the traveling public.

”When you think about all the miles of streets, highways, interstate and interchanges Ron had a hand in building and maintaining in that part of the state, he really had a tremendous and long lasting impact on the state and its citizens!’ Bergquist added.

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For Peterson, working at the Yankton DOT office represented a homecoming.

After graduating from Wakonda High School, he attended South Dakota State University in Brookings and graduated in December 1971 with a civil engineering degree.

Peterson began his DOT career in February 1972, spending 10 months in Brookings and six months in Pierre for training programs. He returned to his southeast South Dakota roots when he joined the Yankton office in spring 1973, starting as a project engineer and moving through the ranks until becoming area engineer in 1999.

During the past 43 years, technology has provided the greatest changes, Peterson said.

”When I started this job, the four-function calculator with add, subtract, multiply and divide didn’t exist,’ he said. ”We had an employee who came in with one (calculator) that cost $180, and that was a big deal. I did my work on a slide rule.’

Now, DOT crews use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and computerized snow plows that control the chemical applications and tell if the blade is up or down.

Technology also allows greater interaction between the DOT and general public on highway conditions and road closures.

Unfortunately, technology has also increased the opportunities for distracted driving, Peterson said.

”You see a car passing, or you’re passing a car, and (other drivers) have their phone in their hand. You have seen so many people text and drive,’ he said. ”People with navigation systems are playing with their GPS. Or they may be listening to or dialing the radio.’

A DOT staff member was the victim of distracted driving, Peterson said.

”We had a maintenance man who was hit, who was rear-ended on Highway 50 east of Yankton,’ Peterson said. ”(The DOT worker) was parked on the road and patching the highway. He was stopping randomly to take care of spots when he was rear-ended.’

Another change has seen the rise of larger and better equipment leading to replacement of the former maintenance shop in every county with a more centralized system, he said.

The cost of maintaining the state transportation system has risen sharply through the years, Peterson said. In turn, the DOT tries to make the best use of its funds through its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), he said.

Because of tight funds, South Dakota has taken a preservation mode rather than construction in recent years, Peterson said. As a result, residents seem generally happy with current road conditions, he added.

”Our roads are in decent shape, so public attendance (at STIP meetings) has dwindled a little bit,’ he said.

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Peterson said he has enjoyed working with a wide range of government officials, media, chambers of commerce and a tri-state incident management team.

”And I’ve been very fortunate to have great staff who supported and help me,’ he said. ”I’ll miss the people.’

Rod Gall, an engineer supervisor in the Yankton office, said the feeling is mutual.

”Ron was respected for his knowledge and experience in all phases of design, construction and maintenance of our state highways,’ Gall told the Yankton Press and Dakotan. ”People always went to Ron for his opinions because he would always listen and give them good ideas on how to solve the problem, including personnel issues.’

Peterson was willing to tackle the tough issues, Gall said.

”Ron was a great leader that was never afraid of a challenge and in almost all cases looked forward to the new challenge,’ Gall said. ”Ron will be missed by many in the Yankton area, Mitchell region and the Pierre central office for his experience.’

Gall joked that Peterson was also known for his thoroughness.

”The company who makes the red ink pens for the state will also miss him because their company will not have to make as many red ink pens,’ Gall said. ”If you wanted Ron to check over a . letter or document, it came back with plenty of red marks that he would like to have changed. He would have been a good English teacher.’

Peterson also showed a sense of humor, Gall said.

”Ron had many sayings, but one that I liked was, if we were on a grading project and the contractor would say, `We are running short of dirt,’ (Ron) would reply, ”That’s impossible, the earth is full of it,’’ Gall joked.

Peterson has plans for retirement. His wife Celia just retired as the Wakonda finance officer after 20 years, and they plan to spend more time with their family. They also intend to continue their private land survey business, making time to fish, golf, camp, tend to the garden and raise sheep.

In addition, Peterson plans to remain involved in many leadership roles. ”I’m part of more boards than a lumberyard,’ he joked.

For now, though, he plans to enjoy his final days with the DOT in the office and on the road.

”There’s never a dull moment at the DOT. There’s something different every day,’ he said. ”It’s been a great career. I wouldn’t change a thing.’

The story originally appeared in the Yankton Press Daily Press and Dakotan.

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