Making the Switch

I learn the most amazing things as I delve into topics. For instance, thanks to Kansas Mountain Time, I now know how to change an area from one time zone to another should the need ever arise. I was actually surprised. It seemed much easier and less bureaucratic than I would ever imagine.

Let’s recap, briefly. Time Zones in the United States fall within the responsibilities of the Department of Transportation due to historical ties to railroads. It would be difficult to move passengers and freight on any semblance of a schedule if every location observed its own interpretation of celestial time. The Federal government established a series of four standard times across the Lower-48 and later fixed geographic areas to each one, creating distinct Time Zones as a result.

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Stanton, County Seat of Mercer Co., ND; the most recent to switch time zones (2010)

DOT’s notion of Uniform Time included a fascinating concept they called "Convenience of Commerce." In other words, it’s more about maintaining an efficient marketplace than accommodating personal or community preferences. Important considerations included patterns and relationships shaping the movement of goods and supplies, workplace locations, transportation networks, television broadcast footprints and community services. Those factors in close alignment would tend to support the case for a common observed time.

Things get fuzzy along the edges. DOT examines Convenience of Commerce to decide whether a community should fall on one side of a boundary or the other.

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Convenience of Commerce changes over time. It’s not unheard of, in fact it’s surprisingly common, for communities to grow closer figuratively to neighbors on the other side of a Time Zone boundary than their own. The Department of Transportation realizes that relationships change. They’ve established orderly procedures to move communities from one Time Zone to another. It can be accomplished a couple of different ways, either by statute or by regulation. The first involves an act of Congress and obviates any further analysis, although it’s also quite rare. The second is much more common and can be initiated by a state government or a local government like a county board of commissioners. In that case DOT will examine the application, gather input from parties that might be affected, gauge Convenience of Commerce and make a decision. That usually happens in just a few months, a lightning-fast process for a government agency.

The Federal Register Notices of recent proceedings were surprisingly readable and usually just a couple of pages long. I reviewed each of them and mapped all of the Time Zone changes since 1999 on the embedded image, above. Many of these changes had back-stories that could only be uncovered by reading the details in the Notices.

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For example, only a portion of Sioux County, North Dakota switched to Central Time in 2003 although the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners originally requested a boundary relocation for the entire county. Sioux County west of Highway 31 remained in Mountain Time.

The decision for the eastern side of the county was obvious. Bismarck, the state capital, wasn’t very far away and it’s in Central Time. That satisfied Convenience of Commerce. However, if one ever doubted the impact a single voice, one will be gratified to learn that an individual made all of the difference for the western side:

Frank Tomac, a resident living in western Sioux County, concurred with most of the arguments presented by the County Commissioners. He suggested, however, that the time zone boundary be placed at State Highway 31, rather than the western border of the county. Mr. Tomac noted that the western part of the county is rural and very sparsely populated. He noted that there is no road going east to west in this part of the county. Residents must either go into South Dakota or drive a considerable distance into Grant County to get to the eastern part of the county. Because of the proximity with the South Dakota border, Mr. Tomac noted that many of the public services in this area are provided in South Dakota. Other services are provided in Grant County, which is on mountain time. In response to his comments, the Commissioners decided to amend their request.

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The recent proceedings captured part of the madness that is time in Indiana. Daviess, Dubois Knox, Martin, Pike, and Pulaski Counties all switched to Central Time in 2006 and switched back to Eastern Time again the following year. It’s an unusual case. Chicago, IL tugs the northwestern corner of Indiana towards Central Time. Evansville, IN in the far southwest anchors a tri-state area where the other two states follow Central Time. Cincinnati, OH tugs the southeast towards Eastern Time. Louisville, KY towards the south also pulls towards Eastern Time. No single Convenience of Commerce serves to unify time in Indiana.

Attempts to explain the complexities of time in Indiana are beyond the scope and space limitations of 12MC. Entire books could be written on the subject and emotions run high. You’re better off consulting "A Brief History of Time (in Indiana)" from the Indianapolis Star newspaper or Wikipedia’s Time in Indiana if you’d like to review the countless twists, turns and permutations. It’s mind-boggling.

I’d almost rather read those Federal Register notices.