One way or the other, the oil and gas industry seems to be ever-present in the minds of Texans. Through last summer, oil prices over $100 per barrel were fueling a boom in drilling activity across the state, especially in the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale formations. Texas was supporting 48 percent of all active drilling rigs in the country — more than any other state.
This energy-development boom, while great for Texas’ economy, was a double-edged sword. Heavy truck traffic on roads designed for low traffic levels was causing major damage. Increased maintenance costs, more risk to public safety, and more impacts on the environment were the result.
Leaders at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) Transportation Policy Research Center (PRC) agreed it was time to explore what other states facing similar issues are doing. TTI Associate Research Scientist David Bierling and his team studied eight other states besides Texas that have also experienced rapid, intense energy development: Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. Specifically, researchers wanted to learn how departments of transportation (DOTs) in those states have addressed the impact of energy development–related freight activity on their roadway systems.
What does this mean for Texas? “The current energy market and recent drop in drilling activity present Texas with an opportunity to figure out how to deal with these impacts in the future when the drilling boom comes back,” answers Bierling. “By looking at what other states have done, Texas can evaluate which policies, programs and practices might also work if they were implemented here.”
Bierling and his team found four notable mitigation techniques that other state DOTs currently have in place:
- posted and enforced weight limits,
- bonding and maintenance agreements between DOTs and industry,
- industry engagement programs, and
- capital improvement programs.
Traffic restrictions are one type of state DOT policy. Several states post vehicle weight limits, which are first determined by examining existing roadway conditions. Pennsylvania and West Virginia have used road-use maintenance agreements through contracts with industry to help their DOTs manage financial and maintenance impacts on roads. Pennsylvania also established a formal industry engagement program to help energy-sector stakeholders anticipate, report and resolve road infrastructure issues. Researchers also found that capital improvement programs may significantly increase state DOTs’ levels of funding and ability to appropriate those funds toward energy-developed areas.
The research indicates that techniques to better address energy-development impacts do indeed exist. However — coupled with the challenges the DOTs face — execution of policies can be very difficult. Across the board, DOT officials are facing multiple constraints that make it challenging to deal with energy-development impacts on state roadways. Along with limited financial resources, tracking the varying development time frames of the transportation and energy sector can be difficult. In other words, maintenance and development of the transportation network are often in reaction to energy-sector and related activities. Given that reality, it can be difficult to proactively sustain the transportation infrastructure.
“Many states with high levels of energy production have experienced the same roadway damage problems that we’ve seen here in Texas,” says PRC Director Ginger Goodin. “Our research in this area — based on lessons learned in those other states — can help to inform the related decisions that our state’s policy makers are facing.”