Energy Boom Leaves One Tiny Wyoming Town Stuck In The 'Coal Miner 500'
The little town of Bill, Wyoming is certainly not a boom town. It this town of 11, there's a school, a post office, a hotel and a general store. What it lacks in population and size, it's making up for in oil and gas traffic. 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.
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. According to Wyoming's Department of Transportation, accidents on Highway 59, which runs through Bill, nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013.
Nell Bride, owner of the Bill Store, said she is "scared for her life" when she pulls out onto the road and sometimes has to wait 10 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 Speed Racer 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," Bride said. "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."
Jim Willox, an official with Wyoming's Converse County, where much of the oil and gas boom is taking place, 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, Willox notes that energy development and industrial road use 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," Willox said. "It is a dynamic, non-stable environment early on."
More than that, the funding for traffic and road improvements comes largely in part from oil and gas revenues.
"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," Willox said.
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.
Increased traffic and accidents is a multistate trend in areas with heavy oil and gas development. These days, affected states are dumping money into fixes.
"So mix the oil field with the coal miners and you've got nothing but... it's a race way. A dangerous one."
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.
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.
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, Shiloh White said this dynamic is reflected in the local attitudes toward Highway 59.
"They call it the coal miner 500," White said with a laugh. "Because once them coal miners are going to work and coming to work, that used to be the main problem. But now it's the oil field. So mix the oil field with the coal miners and you've got nothing but… it's a raceway. A dangerous one."
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.