November 17, 2014

A Tiny Wyoming Town, Stuck In (Boom) Traffic

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Highway 59 traffic going through Bill, WY.

Leigh Paterson/Inside Energy

Highway 59 traffic going through Bill, WY.

Update: On Tuesday February 17th 2015, the Wyoming House of Representatives and Senate both defeated amendments to put more money into safety upgrades on Highway 59. Governor Matt Mead had asked for $21 million to add more passing lanes on the highway, but the Joint Appropriations Committee agreed to just $17 million to fund repairs on both Highway 59 and U.S. 20/26. Lawmakers said revenues associated with falling oil prices have made the state reluctant to spend money.

The oil and gas boom in states like Wyoming, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas has not only brought jobs and prosperity but also a dangerous spike in traffic and accidents. These states have reacted with a variety of fixes, but not one has been able to prepare in advance for the traffic boom. That is partly because a large slice of transportation funding in most states comes from the oil and gas industry itself. Jim Willox is a local official in Wyoming’s Converse County, where much of the oil and gas boom is taking place:

“As a county we’re putting millions into road and bridge projects but we didn’t have millions of dollars to put into road and bridge projects until we had the oil and gas development to generate the revenue so we could put it into roads.”

Think about it like this: When you file your taxes every April, you’re paying for the previous year. The same goes for oil and gas companies. By the time additional revenue from oil and gas development trickles down to the county level, it is often a year or two since energy development began.

The revenue timing defense from lawmakers means little for people living and driving in boom areas. Take Bill, Wyoming, population: eleven. There is a school, a post office, a hotel, and a general store. Definitely not a boom town. But Bill is situated in the middle of a 115-mile stretch of highway that connects two of Wyoming’s biggest boom towns: Douglas and Gillette. According to Wyoming’s Department of Transportation, accidents on that road nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013.

Nell Bride, owner of the Bill Store, is fighting to get the speed limit reduced in town.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Nell Bride, owner of the Bill Store, is fighting to get the speed limit reduced in town.

Nell Bride, who owns the Bill Store, says she is ‘scared for her life’ when she pulls out onto the road and sometimes has to wait ten minutes for a break in traffic.

“In the last two and a half years this is new traffic,” Bride said. “It used to be a lazy little highway, now it is like speedracer highway. It’s not uncommon for people to pass you going 80 or 90 miles an hour.”

Her solution, at least for the small town of Bill, seems simple. Bride wants the speed limit lowered, which would require changing just two signs. After several public meetings about safety on Highway 59, WYDOT is looking into several safety upgrades, including lowering the speed limit. But Bride is deeply skeptical:

“[The DOT is] blowing smoke up my hiney. Don’t tell me you’re going fix it if you’re not really going to fix it. Actually do something about it. It doesn’t take much to put in two speed limit signs.”

The Bill, WY post office serves 11 residents plus area ranchers and workers.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

The Bill, WY post office serves 11 residents plus area ranchers and workers.

Jim Willox explained that transportation policy is slow-moving and almost always reactive. Changing one speed limit on a road that uses federal dollars, for example, requires a traffic study…which requires the presence of traffic. Even if policy changes were a bit more nimble, energy development and industrial road use, Willox said, is hard to plan around:

“We knew it was coming but even geographically, the companies we were talking to 18 months ago weren’t able to nail down where they thought the growth was going to happen consistently. It is a dynamic, non-stable environment early on.”

Increased traffic and accidents is a multi-state trend in areas with heavy oil and gas development. These days, affected states are dumping money into fixes. WYDOT has earmarked $22 million in its proposed budget to add passing lanes just on that 115 mile stretch of Highway 59. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the legislature provided the department with $225 million in funding for critical repairs to damaged roads in energy-producing areas across the state. In North Dakota, $1.5 billion of the total transportation budget for the next two years has been set aside specifically for roadways in the western part of North Dakota where the boom is taking place. That’s more than half of the state’s total budget for infrastructure upgrades.

A truck, driving on Highway 59, flies past the Bill Store.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

A truck, driving on Highway 59, flies past the Bill Store.

So, if you can see a boom coming, is there any way to be proactive with infrastructure fixes?

Dr. Khaled Ksaibati, director of Wyoming’s Technology Transfer Center, studies this very issue. He is working on a pilot program that could help states and counties be more proactive. Dr. Ksaibati explained that his project involves vehicles equipped with GPS, lasers, cameras and computers that scan the road to collect data on qualities like pavement thickness, roughness and cracks.

“They look at all of these video tapes and then they convert those video images into numbers into what we call the pavement condition index,” he said, describing his team’s work: “There are deductions for cracks, potholes and then every section will be given a number. The higher the number, the better the pavement.”

Ksaibati believes this data could help communities fix current road problems and prepare for the future. “So if they get hit by some industrial activities or heavy truck traffic in a year or two, we can look at the conditions again and subtract those two conditions from each other and then we can basically figure out the actual impact of those,” Ksaibati said.

But in a state like Wyoming, that basically runs on the energy industry, the boom and bust cycle is constant.  An oil worker at the Bill Store said this dynamic is reflected in the local attitudes towards Highway 59.

“They call it the coal miner 500 haha! Because once them coal miners are going to work and coming to work, that used to be the main problem. But now its the oil field. So mix the oil field with the coal miners and you’ve got nothing but a ….race way. A dangerous one.” 

What’s Next:

  • WYDOT could lower the speed limit in Bill, WY by the end of November
  • Bus driver involved in May 2014 accident that killed three on Highway 59 will stand trial, date TBD.
  • If Wyoming’s legislature approves WYDOT’s request for funds to upgrade Highway 59, that money would become available in July 2015, at the earliest.