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Overweight, oversize trucks take toll on Oil Patch roads

A semi travels north on Highway 22 about 15 miles north of Dickinson on Sept. 16. Roads in the Oil Patch have taken a beaten from overweight and oversize semis.

BISMARCK (AP) -- The number of oversize and overweight trucks using county roads and bridges in North Dakota's Oil Patch has more than doubled in three years, and while counties are collecting millions of dollars in permit fees, officials say the money isn't enough or even earmarked for road maintenance.

The number of oversize or overweight permits issued by the 18 counties in western North Dakota's oil-producing region has more than doubled since 2009 and increased more than 500 percent in the past five years, records show. The counties will collect more than $4 million in permit fees in the fiscal year that ends June 30, but officials say that's just enough to cover administrative costs.

"It absolutely doesn't even put a drop in the bucket what it's costing these counties to fix roads," said Janet Sanford, who heads the permit program for the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties.

Sanford said 83,475 permits were issued by the consortium of oil-producing counties through May.

The permits are intended to help authorities track shipments, and the fees cover administrative costs, she said. Counties rely on oil production taxes to fix roads and bridges, but that revenue isn't keeping pace with the damage done by the scores of heavy trucks supporting North Dakota's record oil production, Sanford and others said.

Billings County Sheriff Dave Jurgens heads a group of sheriffs, road foremen and other county officials in western North Dakota who monitor the permits. Later this month, the group is slated to review the permit fees, which haven't changed in at least a decade, he said.

"They may stay the same or they may be adjusted," Jurgens said. "There is no way charge enough for permits to pay for fixing roads. But maybe permit fees can help with maintenance."

Permits for loads heavier than the legal limit of 105,500 pounds, or 53 tons, but no more than 200,000 pounds cost $20, or $15 less than a nonresident fishing license in North Dakota. Loads more than 200,000 pounds cost $5 per ton, per mile for all weight above the legal limit, Jurgens said.

The largest load on a county road in western North Dakota was a 630,000 pounds in Williams County last year, Sanford said. The permit cost $21,000.

About a third of the more than 200 rigs drilling in the Oil Patch are working in McKenzie County. Each drill rig requires dozens of heavy trucks in support.

County engineer Michael Greer said there are 130 miles of asphalt and 1,400 miles of gravel roads in the county and about 80 percent of them need maintenance.

"The roads were not designed for the traffic they have," Greer said.

The jump in oil traffic and the increasingly leaden big rigs also is taking its toll on state roads and bridges.

About $500,000 in repair work was completed this week near Watford City on the Long X Bridge, which was damaged when it was struck by a truck load that was too high. Cost of the repairs will be billed to trucking company's insurance carrier.

The state will spend nearly $1 billion repairing and improving roads and other infrastructure in the oil-producing region during the budget cycle that ends July 1, 2013, or about double that of the previous two-year budget.

State transportation records show 236,530 permits were issued for overweight and oversize trucks last year, up from 159,284 in 2009. Revenue from permits more than doubled during that time, from $5 million to $10.6 million, records show.

The cost of the permits on state roads and highways ranges from $20 to $70, depending on the size of the load.