North Dakota construction program largest in state historyFor years, the North Dakota Department of Transportation has built roads to handle trucks carrying sugar beets and moderate traffic. Now, it’s heavy oil tankers and thousands more vehicles.
By: TJ Jerke, Forum News Service
BISMARCK -- For years, the North Dakota Department of Transportation has built roads to handle trucks carrying sugar beets and moderate traffic. Now, it’s heavy oil tankers and thousands more vehicles.
The oil boom has prompted a 22 percent increase in statewide traffic since 2010, with 53 percent of that increase in western North Dakota, according to the Transportation Department. The increase has put a strain on North Dakota roadways, creating the need for the department’s 2013 construction program, which will be the largest in state history with 327 projects worth about $878 million.
“Roads are typically designed for a 20-year life, which requires a continual investment to keep it moving forward,” said Transportation Director Grant Levi. “These roadways weren’t designed to handle heavy loads, nor are they wide enough. We are breaking new ground putting this infrastructure in place.”
Levi held new conferences Thursday in Fargo and Watford City to unveil the 2013 construction plan, calling the total 2013-15 biennium plan of $2.3 billion provided by the state Legislature and governor a historic investment.
The $2.3 billion will be the total spent during the biennium on state, county and township roads -- $1.5 billion in the Oil Patch and about $750 million everywhere.
This is a significant increase from the 2011-13 biennium, when the Transportation Department spent $1.3 billion, with $773 million going out west and $545 million to the east and central regions.
“The best public investment in public transportation is making improvements at the right time,” Levi said in an interview Friday.
He said now is the time to beef up western roads, as they can no longer accommodate the stress and strain of the daily Oil Patch activities.
A large chunk of the department’s funding has been dispersed, and projects are already underway after Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a bill in February worth $720 million. That money was “fast-tracked” through the legislative process to allow the road construction season to begin earlier and get a jump on the state's unpredictable weather.
$620 million immediately went out west for major highway projects, predominantly in oil-producing counties, and $100 million was disbursed Feb. 26 through the state treasurer’s office for non-oil-producing counties.
As part of the 2013 construction plan, 127 projects worth more than $694 million are planned in western North Dakota, leaving 200 projects worth more than $183 million for the central and eastern parts of the state.
Levi said Friday that despite the large gap in funding between the two sides of the state, the number of projects and funding balance out well.
Between 1995 and 2010, the Department of Transportation spent about $2.9 billion on central and eastern roads, while $1.2 billion went to the western region.
Department engineers for the Grand Forks and Fargo districts said they are happy with the 2013 plans, getting the funding and projects they need, and they do not have to compete with western state projects.
“Right now, everything we’ve asked for to maintain roadways we’re getting at about the right time,” said District Engineer Bob Walton in Fargo. “We’re not pushing projects back, we have had a lot of funding in the southeast part since 1999, so now we are able to have roads we can maintain and roads in the west can get their needed attention.”
Walton said they are tackling a much needed project to replace the green and white highway signs along Interstate 29 from the South Dakota border to Wahpeton -- signs that have lost their reflectivity since they were installed in the mid-1970s.
Another significant project, which Walton said may cause the most problems with Fargo-area drivers, is the concrete pavement repair on Interstate 94.
He said crews will have to close one eastbound and one westbound lane at the same time, making the three-lane roadway two lanes in each direction and decreasing the speed limits.
“We need a lot of patience and cooperation. There are not a lot of detour routes from the interstate,” he said. “We try to coordinate projects as best we can.”
In Grand Forks, District Engineer Les Noehre said the number and types of projects planned in the northeast will keep his district busy, but noted the demand for statewide road improvements.
“There are needs in central and eastern North Dakota, certainly, but we haven’t experienced the boom in traffic like the western part,” he said. “But there are still increases in the traffic and economic activity all across the state we need to address.”
The three largest projects Noehre said the Grand Forks District will take on are the reconstruction of 10 miles of Interstate 29 heading south of Grand Forks, a 10-mile concrete overlay on U.S. Highway 2 west of town and a 30-mile stretch of interstate north of town.
Levi’s message this week illustrating the significance of this year’s construction program also came with some safety instructions.
“People will encounter road construction, please slow down,” he said.
He said Friday that the Transportation Department is committed to providing safe roads for motorists, and he hopes they can do the same for construction crews.