With increasing fatalities and inadequate infrastructure, NDDOT looks for big picture solutions

By Bill Holloway

Booming populations and truck traffic, driven by the surging oil and gas industry, have led North Dakota to embark on the state’s first comprehensive state freight plan.

As drilling in the Bakken oil fields has accelerated, the costs of severe truck crashes in the state have grown accordingly, reaching $257 million in 2012—twice the amount of costs in 2008. The state now leads the nation in crash fatalities, with 0.48 fatalities per million vehicle miles. This puts the state well ahead of Wyoming, which has the second highest crash fatality rate, and is twelve times Massachusetts’ rate. Several factors appear to be driving the state’s road safety issues: inexperienced and tired truck drivers; narrow and sometimes unpaved rural roads; harsh winter conditions; and the fact that state troopers tend to be concentrated in more heavily populated eastern parts of the state, leaving a smaller number to police the western oil field region.

Although the boom has come about quickly, it may last another 30 years according to geologist Kathy Neset. With decades of continued growth ahead for the oil industry, the state is undertaking its first state freight plan to develop a comprehensive transportation strategy—covering pipeline, truck, rail, and air freight—to promote safety and economic growth. The plan will identify freight bottlenecks along with obstacles, such as low hanging bridges and insufficient load capacities, which force trucks to take longer inefficient routes. Identified in the draft plan are some trends that are anticipated to drive up freight traffic, including an expected doubling in natural gas production by 2017, increasing air freight, and more freight of all kinds to serve the needs of the oil and gas industry workers who have been attracted to the state.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.