Tractor trailer drivers having trouble with weigh station bypass system, Norpass, in South Dakota

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - Several tractor trailer drivers tell KSFY News they've purchased a NorPass transponder, or a similar transponder system called PrePass, but that the three bypass stations in South Dakota are almost never operational.

For drivers who trek thousands of miles across the country, getting a green light at a bypass station like the three at ports of entry in South Dakota can help them save time and money as they work to deliver goods on schedule.

"You know, sometimes the NorPass works and sometimes it doesn't," said driver Dan Harris, who lives in Sioux Falls.

Truck drivers or carrier companies can opt to install NorPass, which gives you a transponder that has a one-time fee of between $40-50 dollars, according to South Dakota Highway Patrol Captain John Broers, who oversees the NorPass program. PrePass, a similar system, costs around $15 monthly. South Dakota's DOT opted to install NorPass in 2004, Broers said, because they felt it better met the needs of the state.

There are three ports in the state -- Jefferson, Sisseton and Tilford -- which have the NorPass system installed and can read NorPass and PrePass transponders.

"Information from the transponder is read from that truck, it then goes to a computer system that checks the carrier's credentials," Broers explained. "If they have a good safety management score, and other credentialing done as in their registration, and things like that -- if all that's in order and they would then get a green light which would allow them to bypass."

Many drivers, like Ralph Williams, who makes the trek from Pennsylvania to South Dakota each week rely on getting the green light at those stations to make deliveries on time.

"90 percent of the time, it saves me a lot of time because i can keep on rolling. when they've given me the green light 50 feet,100 feet out, from the turn lane," Williams said. "I can keep on going past the turn lane and there's trucks sitting waiting to get on the scales."

And Broers said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released a study that said the system saves drivers money a few years ago.

"FMCSA, a few years ago, put out some statistics that having a truck have to stop saves about $8 and some change that it's a savings for them between time and fuel costs and things like that," he explained.

But that's not all ...

"You figure it takes you 10 or 15 minutes to get through each scale and if you do that in every single solitary state you're losing -- on a long distance trip -- you're gonna probably lose anywhere from 30 to an hour and a half two hours of drive time," Williams said. "And they want us to keep to 11 hours of driving every day they want us to take a 10 hour sleep birth we gotta keep going to get the loads there on time."

It seems like a win-win, but drivers who pass through South Dakota's ports of entry say, the bypass stations are doing them any favors.

"South Dakota doesn't even turn them on," Williams said with a laugh. "They leave them off the whole time."

The system where installed is supposed to allow drivers to pass over scales in a bypass lane, to make sure their load is legal. It also has sensors that scan for IFTA information and retrieves the driver's safety rating. Broers said all of that factors into whether or not a driver will get a red or green light, but drivers like Williams, who pass through South Dakota's NorPass stations said they're not turned on.

KSFY News reporter Erika Leigh went to the Jefferson Port of Entry just one day prior to interviewing Capt. Broers. The station was closed. Broers said if the station is closed, the bypass lane will be off too. He said the Jefferson station has had several issues for the last few years, and that this time it was shut down for scale upgrades, but went about six years without a problem until recently.

"We've had some equipment upgrades as well as equipment problems that needed to be replaced so theres been times when they -- when none of the screening systems have worked," Broers said. "It's not just NorPass but it's a mechanical device so it can and will fail. I think we've corrected those problems and they're operational again."

The drivers KSFY spoke to said that's just not true.

"You wonder why you're paying that [for the transponder] -- and then you go in and they just run you across the scale cause we run legal all the time and you know it's just some time that you have to slow down and take off again," Harris said.

"South Dakota loves to put everyone across the scale," said Williams. "I don't know why. They make us go into the scale, no matter if we have PrePass or not."

Williams isn't alone. Harris and several other drivers we spoke to who make trips all across the country that take them through Sioux Falls said the same exact thing has happened to them. They've gone to a South Dakota Port of Entry, and it wasn't that they got a red light and had to pull off to head into the weigh station -- they say -- the system is completely off on a regular basis.

Harris said he drives to Washington state, where they also use NorPass and his experience has been a little different there. Harris said the lanes there are always turned on, and he can use both his NorPass and his PrePass transponders in them. Harris said he's never once had to pull off into a weigh station in Washington. The bypass lane is always on and he always gets a green light.

The state didn't have the numbers for how much they spent on installing the NorPass system but said some of the cost came from a federal grant. Broers said they are trying to build another NorPass lane at the Port of Entry on I-90 coming from Minnesota near Valley Springs, but are waiting for another grant to install it. He also said, the state doesn't see a dime from the cost of the transponders.

Oddly enough, there is a "Revenue Supervisor" listed on the South Dakota's NorPass website. In a phone interview Tuesday, KSFY News reporter Erika Leigh asked Capt. Broer what that position entailed if the state doesn't receive money from the transponders. Broer said Chris Kiel's position is to help drivers who are having trouble with their transponders or who need help registering for one. Kiel can be reached at 605-773-4110.

Leigh also asked why drivers might think the system is off, and Broers said it could be because there is an issue with the driver's transponder. He said the NorPass transponders' batteries only last for 2-3 years.