November 7, 2012

Highway Patrol has it hands full

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

“We are robbing Peter to pay Paul,” states Capt. Eldon Mehrer, commander of the North Dakota Highway Patrol (NDHP) Motor Carrier Division. He is referring to the fact that what is going on in western North Dakota has started rippling across the state. And now cities farther removed from the Bakken have started feeling the effects of western North Dakota’s oil boom.
“We are shifting resources from eastern North Dakota to the west side of the state in order to deal with the oil industry’s impact, but that hasn’t alleviated the workload in eastern North Dakota,” states Mehrer. “Places further east of the oil boom have started feeling the impact because resources are being taken from them.”
The NDHP breaks North Dakota down into four regions. In the last year, the NDHP has added five Motor Carrier enforcement officers to the Northwest Region of North Dakota, which covers five counties including Williams and McKenzie counties. The total number of Motor Carrier Officers stationed in the Northwest Region is now 14. However, the NDHP only has 22 total Motor Carrier Officers in the state, leaving the remaining eight troopers responsible for North Dakota’s remaining three regions.
The reason for this redistribution is activity. According to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, an average of 13,000 vehicles travel through the junction of U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. Highway 23 on a daily basis, and 5,000 of them are commercial motor vehicles.
“The truck traffic is exploding,” states Mehrer. “There are 17 oil- and gas-producing counties, so things are busy all the way around. Also, everything comes in and out by semi.”
On a year to date daily basis in 2012, an average of 5,530 vehicles travel N.D. Highway 23 from Watford City to New Town. In 2011, that number was 4,020. Also, year to date in 2012, an average of 11,051 vehicles travel U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to the junction of U.S. Highway 85 and U.S. 2 in Williston. In 2011, that average was 6,270.
“North Dakota has seen an increase in vehicle miles traveled on the state highway system,” states Jamie Olson, of the NDDOT Communication Division. “We only have statistics for 2011, but in 2011, North Dakota saw a 10 percent statewide increase in vehicle miles traveled, while western North Dakota saw a 25 percent increase. Also in 2011, truck traffic increased approximately 27 percent across the state and an average of 32 percent in western North Dakota.”
Not only is there an increase in the number of vehicles on the highway, but there is an increased number traveling in violation of North Dakota’s vehicle weight restrictions.
In 2011, the NDHP collected $1.5 million in overload assessments. Already in 2012, 1,500 semis have been found in violation, totaling $2.5 million in overload fees.
“The roads are only capable of supporting so much weight,” states Mehrer. “Overweight vehicles cause ruts and reduce the life span of highway infrastructure, and that ultimately costs the taxpayers money.”
Walt Peterson of the NDDOT states that it costs around $1.5 to $2 million per mile to construct a new highway, and highway overlays can range from $300,000 per mile to $700,000, depending on thickness.
For the NDHP, it is not solely an issue of crowding and road damage. Northwestern North Dakota has seen a rapidly rising traffic fatality rate since the onset of the boom.
“Through Oct. 19, 2012, there have been 26 fatal crashes involving commercial motor vehicles resulting in 29 fatalities. Of those 26 fatal crashes, 17 occurred in the northwest corner of North Dakota,” states Mehrer. “To be clear, this does not mean that the commercial vehicle caused the crash. It is a statistic referring simply to crashes involving commercial motor vehicles.”
In fact, according to Mehrer, accidents involving semis are often caused by the drivers of passenger vehicles, not the commercial vehicle drivers. Which is why the NDHP wants motorists to understand that the number of vehicles on North Dakota highways has increased and traffic patterns have changed. And all motorists need to change their driving habits.
“We need people to know that things are different now. The number of vehicles is different, traffic patterns are different, and the type of vehicles on the roadway is different,” states Mehrer. “Around 15 years ago there were a lot of single axle farm grain trucks. But now everyone has gone to semi use. People need to be more aware of their surroundings, they need to be more aware of other vehicles and they need to take their time.”
Mehrer states that, “What is going on in western North Dakota is on the NDHP’s radar. We talk about the oil country and how to deal with it on a daily basis.”
According to Mehrer, in addition to redistributing resources and patrolling western North Dakota highways, the NDHP is actively trying to educate drivers, all in an effort to keep the highways safe.