Crumbling under the pressure: Western ND roads deteriorating rapidly under increasing traffic
What traditionally were well-maintained roads in western North Dakota have proven to be insufficient as traffic picks up.
Over the next two years, the state is eyeing several projects to improve travel, including overlays from the state line north to Bowman, making the road from Watford City to Williston four lanes and looking to overlay Highway 85 to the state line on U.S. Highway 2.
But Jane Berger, programming engineer for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, emphasizes that completion of any of the above projects will hinge on what state and federal funding becomes available.
"We have a lot of carryover work, too, that did not get completed this year," she said. "We're looking at all of these possible projects over the next two years, but we have to balance the issue of keeping corridors open and not having everything under construction."
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, state Senate majority leader, estimated that the oil tax alone could bring in $3.5 billion to the state, on top of money from the general fund, special funds and the federal government.
Wardner said legislators are looking at opening up the formula used to determine how much money goes back to the counties, cities and school districts in lieu of property taxes that oil companies, by law, do not pay on their property on the well site.
"Instead, we collect a production and extraction tax and a percentage is put into the formula and goes back to the counties and cities and school districts," he said. "That formula wasn't enough, so we opened it up two bienniums ago, so that more money could go back to the political subs. We're working on it. It's a work in progress."
Because of the increased traffic, Wayne Biberdorf, North Dakota's energy impact coordinator, said there are several issues on the roads, including more aggressive drivers and dust, that were less of a problem before the oil boom.
"What we are seeing is that when this all started out, we had good roads, and I'm talking state roads, county roads and township roads," he said. "They were adequate for what we had to get done, but we never envisioned this kind of traffic on our roads."
Berger said last week at the annual Theodore Roosevelt Expressway in Medora that many of the roads in the oil-impacted areas are 40 to 50 years old and were not originally built with the heavy traffic that has come to western North Dakota in mind.
"We're dealing with accelerated deterioration that we have never seen on the roads before," she said. "We would see deterioration on the roads, but it wasn't as fast. Traditionally, we have been able to maintain a lot of those roadways simply by sealing them because what would be deteriorating the roads was weathering, and it generally wasn't a load-bearing failure that we would experience on the roads."
That's no longer the case, though.
"We're starting to see a lot of failures on the roads because when the roads were built, people certainly weren't projecting what would happen that we would have traffic like this years later, so the roads are simply not structurally designed to handle the type of traffic that passes through today," Berger said.
Berger's department is responsible for the programming and scheduling of road projects and obtaining federal aid to complete those projects, as well as tracking the impact of oil-related traffic in the state.
She said the state is looking at different ways to use state funds to speed up the construction process and "streamline some of the environmental processes" that are required if federal funds are used to pay for the work.
But a solution to road issues will not come solely from the NDDOT or the state Legislature, Berger said.
"One thing I want to point out is that 95 percent of North Dakota's oil wells are not directly served by a state highway," she said. "The reason I want to point that out is because it shows that the oil impact, across the board, is going to require a local solution, as well as a state solution."