June 15, 2011

Working together to fix county roads

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

If there is one thing that can fill a room in western North Dakota’s oil patch quicker than a free meal, it’s a discussion on the need to fix county roads.
And the deplorable condition of county roads in the state’s oil patch was the subject of a hastily called meeting in Watford City last Friday that attracted county commissioners, representatives of the oil industry and the North Dakota Dept. of Transportation.
 “We can’t stop the rains,” stated Dale Patten, McKenzie County commissioner. “We need manpower, equipment and material to fix the county roads out here. There is a lot of manpower, equipment and material in the oil patch. We need to come up with a solution to keep our roads repaired.”
And according to Jim Arthaud, Billings County commissioner, the quickest solution to keeping county roads open and in good condition is to utilize assistance from the oil companies.
“We need to be able to work together to fix our roads,” stated Arthaud. “You can’t just shut down a rig or a frac job. We need to be able to work together.”
But Arthaud isn’t proposing that oil companies have a free hand in repairing county roads.
“We will need to set up a legal framework to cover liability issues, as well as put in place proper supervision of any work that is being done,” stated Arthaud.
And while Arthaud noted that the  unusually heavy snowfall this winter coupled with record rains created the biggest problems to county roads this spring, he also stated that the volume of oil field traffic is having a tremendous impact.
“It is estimated that there will be 21,250 wells drilled in western North Dakota in the next 10 to 20 years,” stated Arthaud.
And with all of those new wells, roads will continue to take a pounding.
“There are currently 180 rigs running in western North Dakota,” stated Arthaud. “That means that there are approximately 10,000 trucks on the roads each day servicing those wells.”
With that kind of increased traffic volume, it is no wonder that county commissioners are hoping that they will find a willing partner in the oil industry to help keep up key county roads. Counties simply don’t have the manpower, resources or equipment to take care of the problems.
“Public/private partnerships are being done nationwide,” stated Francis Ziegler, director of the North Dakota Dept. of Transportation. “We just need to get into the game. We need oil and county people to work with us to put the finishing touches on creating an agreement that covers all of the items and spells out who does what.”
According to Ziegler, the state will be spending $650 million on roads in the oil patch region of the state in the next two years.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” stated Ziegler, referring to the road needs in the oil patch. “We’re putting the money where it is needed, and we are doing it accountably.”
According to Ziegler, the state legislature provided $142 million for county roads in the oil patch which will go mainly to paved county roads, with $20 million for gravel roads.
But with more and more county roads falling into disrepair every day, Patten says that it’s time to get something done.
“Everyone’s patience is running thin,” stated Patten. “We need to get things done.”
According to Patten, the key to maintaining county roads is to designate haul roads for use by the oil industry and then limit the industry’s use of other county roads.
“We need to come up with a shared maintenance agreement with private parties that allows the county to provide supervision of the road being done,” stated Patten, “and then be able to monitor any private work that is done on county roads.”
According to Patten, McKenzie County is currently working on 118 miles of gravel and 20 miles of paved roads that are being heavily impacted by the oil industry.
And the oil industry, according to Ron Ness, director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, wants to be part of the solution.
“Growth doesn’t come neatly packaged,” stated Ness. “We understand the impact and the magnitude of the impact is hard to comprehend.”
According to Ness, he intends to meet with the 38 companies that are operating in the Bakken this week, and partnering with counties to tackle the road issues will be the main topic at the meeting.
Arthaud says that while last Friday’s meeting was the first step in bringing all of the players together, it is important that something happen quickly.
“Hopefully, we will be able to have a committee formed within two weeks that will begin to iron out all of the details of how a public/private  partnership can be formed,” stated Arthaud. “We need to build the base model right. This is going to be here for 20 years.”