The early season snow last Wed., Oct. 3, caught many Dunn County residents off guard and brought to bear once again the challenge of how to best maintain the County’s roads.
BY JENNIFER KOCHER
Dunn County Herald
Posted Oct. 12, 2012
The early season snow last Wed., Oct. 3, caught many Dunn County residents off guard and brought to bear once again the challenge of how to best maintain the County’s roads. With the winter months looming, last week’s light snow storm was perhaps a harbinger of trouble to come as many County residents witnessed their dry, dusty roads turn to mush under the weight of the moisture and tread of heavy truck and passenger car wheels. One trouble spot in particular occurred on 16th St, south of Manning, where a gaping crater large enough to sink a small car had formed by midafternoon.
Responding to calls from concerned residents, Chief Deputy Ron Krivoruchka arrived on the scene to find a hole that measured nearly six feet wide and two-to-three feet deep, which according to Krivoruchka was definitely big enough to “sink a small car.” In lieu of closing the road, Krivoruchka, along with Dunn County Commissioner Donna Scott and Road Superintendent Mike Zimmerman, opted to call Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY) for help repairing the road. According to Zimmerman, Oxy responded graciously to their call for help and within hours, sent over a contracted grader at their expense. Oxy is currently facilitating a frack job on a well site at the end of road, and according to one Oxy spokesman (who declined further comment), its trucks make about 50 roundtrip trips per day.
In the end, the snowfall ceased and the road was once again passable, but the question still remains: what’s the best course for dealing with the County’s ailing road upkeep and snow maintenance and who should be responsible for paying for it?
Few people in Dunn County would argue that road maintenance is not increasingly becoming the major challenge facing the County. Fewer people still would argue that it’s not in everyone’s best interest—from residents to oil field workers and service providers—to maintain the integrity of the roads. In short, everyone has a financial stake in protecting their respective interests and for the most part, everyone is technically paying their fair share, from property, fuel and sales taxes to the combined 11.5% gross production and extraction taxes paid by oil companies.
Nonetheless, Dunn County—given its size and steady increase in daily traffic— is up against an insurmountable challenge when it comes maintaining roads. Currently the Road Department is responsible for constructing and maintaining all of the secondary roads in Dunn County, which amounts to roughly 900 miles. Operating out of shops in Manning, Killdeer, and Halliday, the county employs 27 full-time employees, four to six seasonal employees, all of whom operate the department’s 14 motor graders on rotating shifts, sometimes around the clock when needed. In sum, the price to keep the roads in workable condition comes at a sizeable cost. Last year alone, the County spent $8,434,432.38 on road maintenance and are still running behind, which in light of the revenue the County is producing from oil activity makes some, like State Legislator Shirley Meyer, a bit hot under the collar that more revenue from State coffers is not being returned to the County to help meet these infrastructure needs.
“Last year, the 17 oil-producing counties in North Dakota generated $1.8 billion in revenue for the State.” Meyer said. “In return they received back a total of $225 million, which is simply not enough to support their infrastructure needs.”
In fact, Meyers has drafted legislation designed to overturn the State’s one-fits-all formula that dictates the amount of oil revenue that gets returned to the oil-impacted counties. Under Meyer’s proposed plan, counties will get back 100% of the formula after all of their constitutional obligations are met. Money, which the counties can then use based on their own particular needs.
“I’m a firm believer in local control,” Meyer said. “Counties can disperse their own funds much more effectively than legislators in Bismarck.”
Undoubtedly, increased funds would go far to help maintain the roads in Dunn County, which continually tests the limitations of nature when challenged by raw physics.
As Road Superintendent Mike Zimmerman points out, part of the underlying problem is one of logistics: the roads are simply not designed to handle oil-industry traffic. With 14-16 inches of -gravel over the subgrade surface, the county roads were initially engineered to handle much lighter loads, including single-axel trucks and horse trailers, or small trucks hauling bushels of wheat. Now, however, the roads are met with a minimum of 80,000 pounds of semi-truck weight, which by nature is going to work the surface harder.
Nonetheless, Zimmerman is quick to point out that oil traffic is not solely responsible for road maintenance and upkeep given the fact that the trucks stick to a pattern of oil-designated roads, except in the cases where trucks are led off track by faulty GPS monitoring. Furthermore, Zimmerman states, oil companies have been quick to pitch in resources—both manpower and equipment—when asked to help, as in the case of 16th Street last Wednesday.
“They’ve been great to work with,” Zimmerman said. “They understand what we’re up against here and have always pitched in to help.”
Nonetheless, Zimmerman notes that he wishes that the oil companies would take a more proactive role in road maintenance instead of merely reacting when called, citing Oxy, Marathon and Exxon Mobile among the best with whom to work. “They are out there on the roads, too,” he said. “They can see trouble spots, especially on the weekends when we don’t have crews out.”
And given the receptive nature of the oil companies thus far, Zimmerman sees this as an opportunity to form a more collaborative partnership between companies and the County with regard to maintaining roads, particularly when it comes to snow removal. In fact, according to Zimmerman, County officials have instigated plans to sit down with various oil companies to devise a pro-active strategy for pooling resources and working together with regard to road maintenance.
Furthermore, Zimmerman is not deterred by the challenges facing his crew and urges others in Dunn County to try to be patient as the County continues to devise strategies for how to best deal with its roads. Taking an optimistic stance, Zimmerman appreciates the challenge for what it is: “It’s not really a job, it’s an adventure, because you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day,” he said. “The challenge is keeping up.”