A Reality Check of Bakken Highways

Your rearview mirror & other highway nightmares

By Sid Pranke

Take a moment to consider the following: each oil well in the Bakken requires about 2,024 deliveries from big semis until the drilling and fracking processes are completed. Multiply that times 187, the number of rigs currently in development, as of Sept. 25.

For each well, this includes 600 truck trips to haul water, 100 truck trips for hydraulic fracturing tanks, and 80 truckloads each of sand and gravel, plus trucks to transport rig equipment, drilling mud, chemicals, cement and pipe, according to a report from the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University (NDSU).

Being aware of numbers like that might help to psychologically prepare you to use more caution the next time you have to hit the highways. Not that you need to be reminded – a trip down Highways 85 or 22 can be an instantaneous wake-up call, as can highway accident statistics.

An increasingly common but terrifying rearview mirror occurrence on Bakken highways.

In 2011, 148 people died on N.D. roads, 43 more than in 2010, according to North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) statistics. McKenzie and Ward counties had the greatest number of fatal crashes with 13 each, Williams County had 10 fatal crashes and Stark County had one fatality. Pickups, vans and utility trucks accounted for 47.9 percent of the fatal crashes in 2011.

The number of injured drivers in North Dakota in 2011 was 5,022, up from 4,682 injured drivers in 2010.

When you must travel on Bakken roadways such as highways 85 and 22, there are tips that can help you stay safer. Will Brown, a field service mechanic with Tooz Construction in Dickinson, drives a 5-ton truck on busy highways as part of his job and has advice about sharing the road with the big rigs.

“Give truckers the space and stay off the cell (phone),” Brown said. “I was on a service call and I’m following a tanker truck and this gal cut in right between us. I was probably seven counts behind him (the tanker truck) because we were going about 65. This gal cut right between us. And if that truck would have hit his brakes, that gal would have been gone.”

In driver’s education class back in high school, perhaps you learned about the three-second rule, where you watch the vehicle in front of you pass a landmark, then start counting until you pass the same landmark in your vehicle. Brown said three counts isn’t good enough for him. “I usually go by one count per 10 miles I’m going,” he said, saying he normally would count to six if he was traveling 60 miles per hour. “And if I’m in my service truck I count 7, because I’m a 5-ton. It’s a lot heavier than a car.”

Brown finds that not only are many drivers unaware of how long it takes for a large truck to slow down, they also often travel too close behind large trucks. “I might just see a shadow, if that, if the vehicle is following too close,” Brown said.

Truckers, too, take their share of the blame in some cases. Discussing the topic at Tiger Discount Truck Stop in Dickinson, Brown’s fiancée, Leslie Ziegler, chimed in: “The truckers think they are the King of the Road.”

Brown didn’t disagree. “On Highway 85, I’ve literally seen it where the trucker pulls out right in front (of oncoming traffic) and they don’t care. They just do not care. It’s sad … more than likely, they know that you’re going to end up just standing on your brakes,” Brown said.

But what to do if a big semi is following too closely behind you and there’s no passing lanes and no places to turn off the road, such as the Belfield to Watford City stretch of Highway 85? “If they (the big trucks) make you uncomfortable, I would just pull over to the side of the road and let the convoy pass you, if you can do so safely,” Brown said.

What the candidates for  governor propose to do

Jeff Zent of Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s office, said they are studying the latest report from NDSU’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute entitled “An Assessment of County and Local Road Infrastructure Needs in North Dakota” as part of its infrastructure planning.

Dalrymple in late August proposed investing $2.5 billion in statewide infrastructure improvements during the 2013-2015 biennium, which includes $1 billion for extraordinary highway and road maintenance projects and an additional $145 million for the County and Township Road Reconstruction program, of which $4 million helped to build the first Williston temporary bypass.

Ryan Taylor, who’s running for governor against Dalrymple, said the governor should have called another special session to deal with infrastructure issues, including highway construction.

As he looked over the NDSU study, Taylor said it became apparent that “it’s evident that there’s more infrastructure needed where the (oil) impact is. There’s a problem that has not been fixed to this point in time,” he said. “I think there’s always challenges in getting the resources deployed, I think we could have been more aggressive in getting out in front of the problem, getting resources out there more quickly, which would mean calling a (legislative) session in the midst of the biennium instead of waiting for the Legislature to come in on a once-every-two-year basis. Things move pretty quickly in the oil-producing counties right now, and waiting two years is like an eternity.”

Taylor also said he would add another 143 law enforcement officials, which would include nine more state patrol officers to help enforce highway safety laws as well as adding local law enforcement officials and staff.

Amanda Godfread, communications director for Dalrymple’s election campaign, responded to Taylor’s criticism of the governor:

“No one has put more focus and urgency on infrastructure in North Dakota than Gov. Jack Dalrymple.  During his first few months as governor he doubled the Transportation budget and also championed infrastructure investment for western North Dakota totaling $1.2 billion. That unprecedented funding package includes $242 million for county and township roads statewide, which the state had never done before. Further support was provided in the 2011 special session last November.  Investing in infrastructure is critical to North Dakota and under Dalrymple’s leadership the job is getting done. The Williston bypass that now diverts thousands of trucks around the city each day was accomplished in a matter of months.”

Godfread’s response to Taylor concludes: “More bypasses are on the way, including around Dickinson. Passing lanes continue to be added to Highway 85 creating a more functional north-south route. We need quality roads and highways for our residents and for our economy. This is something Gov. Dalrymple recognized long ago and has led on.”

The challenges of federal requirements for highways

Many people wonder why it takes two or three years to complete reports and comply with federal rules. Bob Fode, as a project development director with the NDDOT, is well aware of the challenges of undertaking highway construction projects when there are federal requirements to fulfill along the way.

“It’s pretty easy to actually deliver a project pretty quickly as long as we have nobody else to deal with,” Fode said. “There’s all kinds of laws out there we have to comply with – the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, we got Noise, we got Cultural Resources, we have Historic Properties, those are all federal laws we have to deal with.”

Fode said in many cases, too, there’s the issue of right-of-way, and the state also must deal with property owners.

“When you talk about a 20-mile project, that becomes fairly significant,” Fode said. “I know it doesn’t sound like much, because a lot of folks will just say, ‘Well, we’re just talking turn lanes at this intersection’ but it’s a whole section of highway that we’re looking at and there’s turn lanes at more than just that intersection.”

In addition, Fode mentioned that a project could have a federal “nexus” to account for when undertaking a new highway project. “U.S. jurisdictional waters would be one, wetlands could be another, BIA land is another, those are all federal nexuses that we would have to work through.”

Highway projects of note in the Bakken

* The temporary 16-mile Williston bypass opened Aug. 20. The construction project used $12 million in state and county dollars for completion – Williams County roads 1 and 6 were widened and paved to connect U.S. Highway 2 north and west of Williston.

* The second temporary Highway 85 bypass east of Williston is expected to be completed by the end of the year 2012.

* Highway 85 Watford City bypass – project would place bypass between 2 ½ to 4 miles south of Watford City. Expected start date is 2014 due to federal reporting requirements for highway dollars.

* Highway 22 in Dickinson area – Expanding to five lanes in north Dickinson to county line.

* Adding turn lanes and passing lanes 12 miles north of Killdeer to Lost Bridge.

* Widening and adding passing/turning lanes from ND 73 to ND 23

* 94 east of Dickinson – the approximate 12-mile stretch of I-94 – Dubbed the “Concrete Interstate Recycle Project,” NDDOT is replacing the existing concrete with new concrete – expected completion date: November 2012.

* Highway 85 from Belfield to Fairfield – in design phase right now. Expected completion: two to three years from now, said NDDOT Dickinson District Engineer Larry Gangl.

Oil transport increasingly off the highways

The transportation of oil has been diverted more to rail and pipeline this year, and that has helped to alleviate some highway traffic.

An estimated 47 percent of oil was transported by rail from the Williston Basin in summer 2012, compared with only 17 percent in summer 2011, according to information provided by Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

And the 77-mile Four Bears Pipeline reduces traffic by more than 50,000 truck miles per day off of highways 22 and 85, according to information provided by pipeline executive Tad True at the N.D. Governor’s Pipeline Summit in June. True is vice president of Bridger and Belle Fourche Pipelines.

Truck laws enforced

The North Dakota Highway Patrol has issued more overload fees so far in 2012 than in all of 2011. This year, troopers have enforced 1,295 overload violations, resulting in $2.1 million in overload fees, compared to $1.9 million in 2011.

Weight enforcement is an important component in the NDHP’s overall traffic safety mission as excessive vehicle weights damage road surfaces, which creates potential risks for motorists and expensive repairs for taxpayers.

The N.D. Highway Patrol, along with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also conducted a commercial motor vehicle inspection saturation in northwestern North Dakota. The three-day event, held in strategic locations throughout the oil production region, took place August 28 to 30. The goal of these ongoing saturation efforts is to identify and address risk factors within the trucking industry. The saturation effort focused on inspecting commercial vehicles and drivers for compliance with federal and state regulations. A total of 263 safety inspections were performed. The process included inspecting commercial motor vehicles and checking the qualifications of the drivers who operate them. The inspections revealed 42 of the 263 commercial vehicles had equipment violations that required them to be placed out of service. In addition, 18 commercial drivers were placed out of service for driver-related violations.

One thought on “A Reality Check of Bakken Highways

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