Road projects moving along in western ND
BISMARCK -- Carie Shade always hears from her drivers that the roads in western North Dakota are too few, too small and there is too much traffic.
"It's impossible to pass, it's almost like a death wish right now," she said. "If we don't stay safe, we aren't going to be in business."
Shade is the general manager of Dakota HotShot Express in Dickinson, which relies on its quick delivery service to maintain business, primarily delivering pipe around the Oil Patch.
As more complaints come in about traffic issues, the more she realizes something needs to be done.
"I don't think anyone saw the oil boom and how big it was going to be," she said. "I think everyone can deal with some road construction as long as it's done right."
On Feb. 4, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a bill worth $720 million that was "fast-tracked" through the legislative process to allow the road construction season to begin earlier and get a jump on the state's unpredictable weather.
Six hundred and twenty million dollars immediately went out west for major highway projects, predominantly in oil-producing counties, and $100 million was disbursed Feb. 26 through the state treasurer's office for non-oil-producing counties.
"It was needed," said Department of Transportation Director Grant Levi. "It allowed us to proceed with a very aggressive construction season."
Levi said the DOT will spend $880 million in federal funds by the end of June, compared to a normal year in which the DOT wouldn't have seen the state money until July.
"The earlier you can get to the issue, the better off you're going to be," he said, adding that bidding out the projects earlier cuts down on costs.
So far, according to DOT spokesman Jamie Olson, 37 projects have been bid out for a total of $320.4 million, with $268 million to be bid out in June and July -- a total of $588.4 million. The rest of the $620 million will be used for engineering and right-of-way acquisition.
One of the largest projects will be expanding Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City into a four-lane highway.
The Transportation Department's southwest district around Dickinson will have its largest budget ever, with an estimated $220 million in construction projects this season.
District Engineer Larry Gangl said the early funding has already started to make a difference.
"It sure helps, it's going to take care of the roads we've had some problems with. There definitely will be some catch-up there," he said.
Gangl said the priority projects for the southwest district are just north of Dickinson along Highway 22.
Gangl said the DOT has already started on three separate projects on Highway 22, and another four projects were bid out May 17 for work along Highway 85.
The projects vary, he said, but most consist of widening oil field roadways with turning and passing lanes, and adding thicker sections of pavement to handle the heavier, more frequent traffic.
According to the Transportation Department, from 2010 to 2012 there was a 22 percent increase in traffic statewide, with a 53 percent increase in traffic in western North Dakota.
With increased traffic comes more crashes, Olson said.
She said North Dakota's traffic fatality rate is following the same trend line as vehicle miles traveled. In 2008, the state's fatality rate was 1.3 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared to the 2011 state fatality rate of 1.6 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
Recent statistics from the Highway Patrol found 39 crashes so far since Jan. 1 that have resulted in 43 deaths. Sixteen of the crashes were on state highways, and nine were on U.S. highways.
A year ago, there were 45 crashes with 49 victims.
So far this year, McKenzie County has had the most crashes with nine, resulting in 11 deaths. Williams County has seen six crashes with six deaths, and the southwest district has had a total of 11 crashes with 11 deaths -- three in Stark County.
Sgt. Tom Iverson, the patrol's safety and education officer, said the Highway Patrol is excited for the expansion and upgrade of the western roads.
"They put a lot of work into designing these roads. The top priority for their engineers is safety, which will ultimately help us as an agency to help enforce the laws," he said. "It'll help with responding to these crashes, it just makes the whole system work so much better."
The DOT advises that drivers take precaution when driving through construction zones. During the season, speed limits will be reduced to 45 mph, drivers should expect delays of 15 minutes or less, trucks and other heavy equipment will be entering and exiting the roadway often, flaggers will be used and gravel surfacing will become common as projects proceed until repaving occurs.
Of the $100 million given to non-oil-producing counties, $20 million was evenly distributed to townships, $64 million distributed to counties and cities through the highway tax distribution formula, and $16 million was given based on the number of road miles in each township.
Through the distribution formula alone, Cass County received $13.5 million, Grand Forks County was given $5.7 million and Stutsman County received $2.4 million.