Photo Courtesy NDDOT
North Dakota's largely rural and low-volume roads need reinforcing to handle the heavy volume of trucks.

Labor, materials and weather are challenging contractors in North Dakota during a highway construction season that is unprecedented thanks to the oilfields boom. There are 600 projects ongoing this year, worth some $630 million, compared to some 300 projects totaling $311 million last year.

More work is coming. The North Dakota legislature recently appropriated $1.64 billion for highway improvement projects and $617 million for city, county and township roads.

Barry Schuchard, project engineer with KLJ Construction, Bismarck, N.D., says the firm is working on widening U.S. Highway 85 and constructing a Watford City bypass meant to divert industrial traffic generated by the Bakken Oil boom from going directly through town. "The sheer number of trucks that need to be accommodated is not what these roads and bridges were originally designed for," he says.

Reinforcing asphalt or concrete is based on industry "Superpave" design specifications and projected traffic numbers, says Joel Wilt, NDDOT project engineer. "Many roads in North Dakota were originally designed for agricultural use and low traffic volumes," he says.

The availability of aggregate sources has been an issue. Costs start soaring if contractors have to import material from out of state. "We've been trying to keep our hauls under 50 or 60 miles," Schuchard says.

With so much work, construction industry outsiders are trying to get a piece of the action. "Middlemen come in with no aggregate crushing capacity and lease up all the pits, and we have to pay 50 cents on the ton just to be able to access them … there are all sorts of games going on," says Andy Cramer, vice president with Knife River Corp., an aggregate production and construction firm. "We've been spending $800,000 to $1 million a year on prospecting to avoid some of that, but sometimes we still have to pay the middlemen."

The short construction season is also a challenge. Contractors are preparing sites to stop for the winter and get going fast in spring. "We have to project out how far we're going to get, and then we need to get at least the aggregate base or a layer or two of asphalt to the endpoint of that section before we have to quit," Schuchard says. "That's not easy to predict when you're trying to push the envelope."

Bismark-based Knife River started work on a $51-million, 8-mile Highway 85 bypass in September and expects to complete about 1.5 miles before the season ends. "We move as much dirt as we can, haul aggregate to the site and stockpile it so it's staged when we resume construction," Cramer says. "Because of road conditions, NDDOT scales back weight restrictions, so break-up isn't as bad. If we crush and haul aggregate and stockpile it, we get around some of those road restrictions in the spring."

It is likely the record-setting pace of construction will soon start to slow, but contractors believe the market for infrastructure work in North Dakota will remain strong for decades, "We do think it's going to level off, but it is going to level off at a pretty high mark," Schuchard says.

"It might not continue to break records every year, but oil expeditions will continue for the next 15 to 20 years and that will put pressure on the needs of North Dakota's roads," he adds.