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Heitkamp: Building safer roads, rails and airports across North Dakota

When I was growing up, I remember taking long drives with my family and hardly seeing another soul across the beautiful landscape of North Dakota. The roads always seemed nearly empty as we departed our small town of Mantador and traveled throughout the state. Little did I know that it would change so quickly.

Today, our land is just as majestic but in recent years roads have become much busier, as thousands of folks have been coming here for plentiful job opportunities and a great way of life — helping to define the extraordinary story that is North Dakota today.

To keep pace with this growth and to make sure that North Dakotans and our goods can travel safely and efficiently, our state needs the necessary resources.

That’s why Sen. John Hoeven and I brought U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Michael Huerta to North Dakota last week. They saw this growth firsthand and we talked about the work that needs to be done to improve transportation safety and infrastructure, while supporting North Dakota’s booming economy every step of the way.

But with such prosperous growth also comes new challenges — including safety concerns that we can’t overlook. The December Casselton train derailment showed us that increased standards are needed for crude shipped by rail. We were fortunate that no one was hurt, but we can’t take any chances in the future. Safety must be our top priority.

Additionally, according to recent reports, 17 percent of North Dakota’s bridges are structurally deficient — the seventh-highest percentage in the country. Forty-four percent of North Dakota’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. And there has been a 2000 percent increase in air traffic at the state’s western airports — which I showed Administrator Huerta firsthand last week.

Secretary Foxx and I have spoken many times about how funding for our roads and highways is our state’s most important transportation need. With high infrastructure demand, we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to give our businesses the resources to get the job done safely and make sure North Dakota families are protected.

That means doing everything possible to prevent tragedies like the derailment from happening again, and I led a push to review rail safety and inspections to increase the pressure on everyone involved to make sure safety is of upmost concern. By bringing Secretary Foxx to Casselton, he shared information about our work together to improve rural transportation and safety and heard from North Dakotans. This included the announcement of a first-of-its-kind agreement between industry and railroads to slow down crude-carrying trains, increase inspections and response training, and consider alternative train routes to reduce risk to communities.

North Dakota’s farmers and shippers are also burdened by increased rail traffic. Even with North Dakota’s growing energy industry, agriculture has always been and continues to be our No. 1 industry. It’s unacceptable that many of their crops have been delayed in getting to market. I have continued to call on regulators and rail companies to make changes to improve service so all industries can successfully use our rail lines.

Additionally, as Congress begins consideration of a new highway reauthorization bill, I will work to make sure rural highways across North Dakota have the resources they need to meet increased demands.

There’s no denying North Dakota’s transportation use and infrastructure have seen incredible changes through the years. But as my children set out on North Dakota’s open roads just as I did years ago, I want them to be able to do so with peace of mind, knowing they will be as safe as possible. If we work together, we can make sure that soon becomes a reality.

Heitkamp is a U.S. senator for North Dakota. Contact her by visiting