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Foothills Contracting Rebuilds US 83 in South Dakota

by: Debra Wood
Foothills Contracting will move more than 2.4 million cubic yards of dirt on the U.S. 83 project for South Dakota DOT.
Foothills Contracting will move more than 2.4 million cubic yards of dirt on the U.S. 83 project for South Dakota DOT.
Foothills Contacting moves dirt on the U.S. 83 project with a Caterpillar D5G Dozer.
Foothills Contacting moves dirt on the U.S. 83 project with a Caterpillar D5G Dozer.
Rob Knight, Jackson Knight, and Robert Knight
Rob Knight, Jackson Knight, and Robert Knight
Foothills Contracting uses a Caterpillar grader and dozer on U.S. 83.
Foothills Contracting uses a Caterpillar grader and dozer on U.S. 83.
Heavy equipment from Butler Machinery makes the project run smoothly.
Heavy equipment from Butler Machinery makes the project run smoothly.
GPS equipment reduces the number of surveyors needed.
GPS equipment reduces the number of surveyors needed.
Crews rebuilding an 11-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 83 south of Murdo, South Dakota, are cutting the tops off hills and filling in the low spots to make the road safer, with fewer elevation changes and curves.

“We’re really changing the sightlines and passing lanes,” says Rob Knight, President of Foothills Contracting of Webster, South Dakota, the prime contractor for the second phase. “It was up and down and corners and ‘no passing zones.’ I don’t know if there was a clean mile in the entire 11 miles that was good for passing. It’s going to improve the safety.”

The South Dakota Department of Transportation’s $51.5 million U.S. 83 project from White River to South of Murdo entails grading, replacing bridges, and adding curb ramps and interim surfacing. The road was built in 1959 and resurfaced in 2001. The first phase of the current project is complete. Phase 2 also includes replacing bridges over the White River and the Little White River.

About 1,665 vehicles drive on U.S. 83 daily. Many are trucks moving goods out of Nebraska. The average daily traffic is projected to increase to 2,183 by 2033. Several crashes occurred on this portion of the route.

Construction of phase 2, a $26 million contract, began in spring 2020 and is expected to wrap up this fall. Phase 3 will entail final asphalt paving and cutting in curb ramps. It is scheduled to begin in 2022.

Massive Dirt Moving
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Foothills Contracting crews are moving 2.4 million cubic yards of dirt, which is 100,000 loads of dirt to scoop up and place.

“This is one of the biggest jobs we have done,” says Robert Knight, Owner and CEO of Foothills Contracting.

“Essentially, we’re redoing the whole 3 feet of the road bed, or if they change the grade, there can be anywhere from 50 feet of cut to 30 feet of fill,” Rob Knight adds. “There are 11 soil types on this stretch of road.”

The soil includes rock-hard and brown shale, sand, and gumbo. All must be mixed to densities and moisture specifications.

Foothills Contracting has recycled 100 percent of the gravel and asphalt from the old road – about 214,000 tons. To successfully move so much dirt and gravel, the construction company relies on heavy equipment and service from Butler Machinery Co.

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Butler Machinery is based out of Fargo, North Dakota, and was founded by Francis J. Butler in 1955. The equipment company remains family-owned and operated with 20 locations in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska. It sells new and used equipment and rents from an inventory of more than 700 machines. Butler offers in-shop and 24/7 field service, with portable diagnostic tools for accurate troubleshooting, cranes, special purpose tools, and field service technicians trained to deliver on-site and emergency service.

Caterpillar heavy machinery, including 66 pieces from Butler Machinery, comprises 95 percent of Foothills Contracting’s fleet. This project requires equipment such as a D5G crawler dozer, a 336F crawler excavator, a D6T dozer and scraper, a 637G motor scraper and a 349E hydraulic excavator. Other machinery on the project include three D6K dozers; 336E and 329E excavators; three D6R dozers; two D9R large dozers; a D9N crawler dozer; 160G, 3-160H and 14G motor graders; 966, 972 and 950 loaders; a D400 haul truck and six Trail King side dump trailers from Butler.

Some of the company’s scrapers date back to the 1970s and 1980s. “We still trust and work with that equipment every day,” Rob Knight says. He credits his and Butler’s maintenance teams for keeping the equipment in top shape.

Toby Royer – Butler Machinery Customer Support Manager in Aberdeen, South Dakota – has worked with Foothills Contracting for about 10 years. He says, “The Knights are standup, class-act guys and good, honest people.”

Foothills Contracting embraces new technologies. The graders have GPS technology, and Butler Machinery technicians trained the operators. “Without GPS on a project of this nature, you would have to have six or seven surveyors on foot,” Rob Knight says. “Now we have two. The GPS is invaluable.”

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Subcontractor Heavy Constructors of Rapid City, South Dakota, is working on the two bridges and a poured-in-place concrete, three-cell box culvert to allow Ash Creek to flow under the roadway. Each interior box is 13 feet wide and 11 feet tall.

Eastern Dakota Specialties of Egan, South Dakota, performed the mulching and seeding. Other subcontractors include Loiseau Construction of Flandreau, South Dakota, which is milling the asphalt off of the old road, and Webster Scale of Webster, South Dakota, moved some dirt in 2020. “It’s been a great relationship with every one of the subcontractors,” Rob Knight says.

Throughout the work, traffic has been maintained.

A Long Family Legacy
Walter Knight founded Knight Construction in the mid-1920s as a small gravel contractor, working on county and state projects in South Dakota. The company ceased operations in 1929 and stayed dormant during the Depression. Walter with a partner formed a new gravel company in 1943. Floyd Knight, Walter’s son, bought out the partner three years later.

Floyd established Knight Construction Co in 1950 by grading highways. Under his leadership, the company grew rapidly. Floyd’s son, Robert, worked summers at the company starting in 1959 and joined the firm full time in 1964. Floyd’s other son, Mark, came on board in 1977. Three years later, Floyd died and Robert took the reins as president. At that time, the company was busy building roads.

“We’ve seen some rough times and good times,” Robert Knight recalls.

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The 1980s were a time of growth for the company, as it expanded into North Dakota, Wyoming, and Minnesota – states it continues to work in. Robert formed Foothills Contracting in 1989 in Wyoming, and the company continued to grow. Robert’s wife, Eunice, works in the office, handling the bookkeeping. “We were following the boom around,” Robert Knight says.

Rob Knight began working at Foothills Contacting in 1983 and joined the family business full time in 1994 after graduating from South Dakota State University. He now serves as president.

Robert bought out his brother, Mark, in 2016 and remains the owner and chief executive officer of the heavy highway construction company, which performs dirt work, gravel and culvert installation. Rob would like to work on more reconstruction projects.

“My Dad is now rebuilding roads he put in during the 1960s and 1970s,” Rob Knight says.

Foothills Contacting employs about 60 people during the season and 25 year-round employees. Many have worked for the company for years. Both Robert and Rob Knight credit those workers with the company’s success.

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“We would really like to express how proud we are of our entire Foothills team, from the office staff to the new employees to our seasoned veteran employees, for overcoming many challenges and putting in place a high quality product for the state of South Dakota,” says Rob.

Rob’s son, Jackson Knight, worked at the firm during the summer of 2021 on the pipe crew. He attends South Dakota State University, studying construction management. “It’s a lot of fun,” Jackson Knight says about working at the family firm.

Jackson is the fifth generation and sixth member of the Knight family to be part of the family business. He plans to keep the legacy going.

“We all get along for the most part and see things the same way,” Rob Knight says. “Even in our off time, we talk shop.”

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