Traffic help on the way in Oil Patch
BISMARCK -- Bypasses to reduce traffic in Williston and New Town will be finished this summer, and a new state coordinator will be hired to monitor issues in the oil- and gas-producing counties, the governor announced Tuesday.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple reported on progress being made in western North Dakota's Oil Patch during news conferences in Bismarck and Williston. He covered state efforts to help with transportation, housing, safety and planning issues, which local officials were eager to hear.
"We've had Rick Santorum out here, we've had Ron Paul out here, but we're actually even more excited to have you out here," Tom Rolfstad, executive director of Williston Economic Development, told Dalrymple.
The governor's update follows a 14-city tour last month when state officials met with nearly 600 western North Dakota residents to hear concerns about the challenges of rapid oil and gas development.
Truck traffic, the need for more law enforcement and the housing shortage were common concerns, Dalrymple said.
State officials compiled a report summarizing the feedback and outlining the state's efforts to help.
Since July, the state has provided about $307 million for transportation projects in oil country, the report said. About $605 million remains to be invested for the 2011-13 biennium.
A $10 million temporary bypass is expected to be finished in Williston by mid-summer. The $6 million first phase of a truck reliever route in New Town is also expected to be complete this summer.
Truck reliever routes in Watford City, Dickinson and Alexander are in the planning stages. Killdeer has expressed interest, but a formal request has not been submitted, Dalrymple said.
There won't be a mandate that semis use the bypasses, but the trucking industry has said it will, said Francis Ziegler of the state's Department of Transportation. Using the bypasses will be quicker for the trucks, which now need to slow down and stop within the cities, he said.
The DOT will also work on a plan to add turnoff lanes on U.S. Highway 2 between Stanley and Williston. The state wants private companies to invest in turnoff lanes for water depots and crew camps, Dalrymple said.
"We need to be asking private companies to finance and pay for these additional safety features as they are the ones that are the primary beneficiaries of this," he said.
The DOT is also reviewing signage, traffic lights and speed limits in oil country, Dalrymple said. The Highway Patrol will increase personnel and time allocated to load limit enforcement and work on a proposal for the Legislature to consider allowing counties to share in the fines collected on county roads, Dalrymple said.
Boots on the ground
Dalrymple said the state will hire a new state energy impact coordinator to report to him and the cabinet about progress and needs in the Oil Patch.
Issues developing at the local level need to be monitored on an ongoing basis, Dalrymple said. The position will be based in the Williston area and will be funded with existing budget resources, he said.
Rick Leuthold, chairman of civil engineering firm Sanderson Stewart, which does work in the oil-producing region, was glad to hear the governor's office will have a staff member stationed in the Oil Patch.
"There's nothing that compares to being here with your boots on the ground," Leuthold said.
During the last session, the Legislature refused to fund what they dubbed an "energy czar" requested by the governor. Dalrymple said the impact coordinator position is "completely different" and will work on impact issues, not energy development at the Commerce Department.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo, who was in Bismarck on Tuesday, said half the battle is communication. The coordinator can help spread the word about what resources the state has to help the oil counties, he said.
The Legislature approved $1.2 billion to address infrastructure, housing and safety needs in western North Dakota for the 2011-13 biennium. As of Jan. 31, about $806 million remains to be distributed.
"The resources are in place to complete a substantial amount of work in the next year," Dalrymple said.
The state will also work with the oil industry to better forecast future oil expansion so local-level planning can address growth needs, he said.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division will monitor the drilling permit process to identify ways infrastructure expansion and oil development can be better coordinated, the report said.
Dalrymple said state officials will also study the oil and gas tax formula to see how money could be more effectively distributed to areas facing the biggest impacts.
The Office of Management and Budget will develop a proposal for the Legislature to consider for sources of funds to finance school building construction in rapidly-growing districts.
There are also several ongoing studies related to roads, housing, planning education and workforce development.
Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil said he's excited to hear that the governor understands what residents in oil country are going through.
"We're in over our heads," Kalil said. "They understand it now. They get it, and there are solutions coming."
Kalil said he's optimistic legislators will adjust the oil and gas tax formula to distribute more funds to highly impacted areas.
"I think the Legislature understands that this is not Williston's oil boom. It's not Williams County's oil boom. It's North Dakota's oil boom," Kalil said. "We're not going to be able to keep that up without some investment."
Housing and safety
To help with the housing shortage, the Bank of North Dakota will bring additional resources into the Flex PACE program to provide low-interest loans to property developers who construct multifamily housing in oil-producing counties, the report said.
The state Housing Finance Agency has leveraged $3.8 million for the construction of 286 affordable housing units in western North Dakota. The residential housing projects are valued at $42 million and are in various stages of construction.
State agencies will also provide help to communities with planning and development of residential growth, Dalrymple said.
To increase safety, the North Dakota Highway Patrol will expand its Trooper-on-a-Bus program to protect students and allow officers to issue traffic citations from the bus.
The Highway Patrol will also increase saturation programs and safety inspections for commercial motor vehicles and drivers. Dalrymple said he's directed nine additional Highway Patrol officers to western North Dakota and four more will be deployed in July.
Rolfstad of Williston Economic Development said the governor's office is addressing infrastructure needs, but cities and counties also have a demand for more staff to keep up with growth. The city of Williston recently added 27 staff members to its budget.
Dalrymple said it's an issue that will continue to be monitored.
"This is an ongoing partnership that we're working on," Dalrymple said.
The plan outlined in the report "does not pretend to have every single item in here," he said. But he said it will help western North Dakota with its challenges
"I think that we will, of course, continue to get better and better at this, and we will have better and better results as time goes by," Dalrymple said.
Forum Communications Oil Patch reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.
Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.