Increased traffic due to oil boom causes North Dakota bridges to take a beating

WATFORD CITY, N.D. --Mauricio Gomez drove a truck more than 1,500 miles from Houston hauling pipe to North Dakota's Oil Patch only to find the bridge on a main traffic route closed, creating a detour that added another 100 miles to his trip.

Truck crash
A semi hauling a trailer with a truck hit the bridge at the Sunset Drive interchange along Interstate 94 at exit 152 in Mandan, N.D., on Feb. 9, 2012. Courtesy North Dakota Department of Transportation

WATFORD CITY, N.D. --Mauricio Gomez drove a truck more than 1,500 miles from Houston hauling pipe to North Dakota’s Oil Patch only to find the bridge on a main traffic route closed, creating a detour that added another 100 miles to his trip.

      A load being hauled by another driver had struck the overhead framing on the Long X Bridge on U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City, forcing it to close.

The Nov. 22 accident was not the first time an oversized load had damaged the 55-year-old bridge, and its not the only North Dakota bridge that takes a beating.

The state’s increased traffic and an influx of out-of-state drivers has led to a rise in bridge hits, North Dakota Department of Transportation spokesperson Peggy Anderson said.

In western North Dakota, Transportation Department bridge engineer Terry Udland said 20 hits have been recorded since 2011.


The Long X Bridge, an overhead truss bridge spanning the Little Missouri River near Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit, has had five hits with “appreciable damage” in the past four years, Transportation Department assistant bridge engineer Jon Ketterling said.

The most recent hit came when an excavator on a trailer hit the bridge’s overhead framing, partially dislodging it from the trailer. That shut down the bridge for more than 50 hours before it reopened to one lane of travel two days later. As of Friday, only one lane remained open to traffic with the second lane closed until repairs are made.

When bridge strikes do occur, drivers are issued a citation. The 37-year-old Georgia man who hit the Long X Bridge on Nov. 22 was cited for multiple violations including being over height and not having a permit.

Drivers without a permit who exceed the legal height of 14 feet will be fined $100, said Capt. Eldon Mehrer, commander of the Motor Carrier Division of the Highway Patrol.

Companies held responsible

Companies can be held liable as well. A state crash report is filed for each accident that includes insurance information for a driver’s company, said Capt. Eric Pederson, Highway Patrol western division commander.

Transportation Department spokesperson Jamie Olson said when a driver causes damage such as hitting a bridge, the company is responsible for paying the repair costs.

“The state will recoup full costs from the insurance companies if the driver is caught,” she said.


The 16th Street bridge near the Dakota Square Mall in Minot saw its third hit in four years on July 17, when a driver in a pickup hauling a several-ton empty tank collided with the overpass. When it struck the bridge, the tank came off the trailer and collapsed, Transportation Department assistant district engineer Bob Allen said.

“The tank was higher than the bridge. I assume the driver couldn’t have had a permit,” he said

The 16th Street bridge is a little more than 16 feet high, with the legal limit up to 14 feet.

In North Dakota, permits are required for loads more than 14 feet high, Mehrer said.

He oversees the permitting section for vehicles and loads that are oversized and overweight. Mehrer said the agency, in partnership with the Transportation Department and the North Dakota Information and Technology Department,rolled out anonline vehicle permitting and routing system in July 2013, which issues permits to users 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A regular permit typically costs from $35 to $85, with additional fees for heavy loads.

The online system requires information such as vehicle type, origin and destination, weight per axle, and load height, length and width before providing an appropriate and safe route based on roadway restrictions that are assessed in real time.

The system also issues other electronic permits including mobile homes, workover rigs and special mobile equipment.


Highway Patrol permit office supervisor Jackie Darr said a driver and the trucking company is responsible for knowing the permit requirements for each state in which the transporting of goods will take place. It also is their responsibility to verify the dimensions of their loads.

“The only way they (accidents) can be stopped is if they order their permits with correct dimensions and they follow their permitted route. The system will not route them under a bridge they are too high for,” Darr said.

When the Long X Bridge was hit July 18, the driver of a truck hauling an excavator had a permit, but had provided “inaccurate height data when purchasing the permit,” Pederson said, adding a prior hit on May 1 also was due to an error in height.

Transportation Department assistant bridge engineer Jon Ketterling said the height restriction for the Long X Bridge is 16 feet. He said if an excavator’s arm is not chained down, it can “creep up” while being hauled.

In 2012, a semi-tractor hauling a trailer with an excavator struck the bridge, knocking the excavator off the trailer. Pederson said the driver, who was traveling north, was operating without a permit for an oversized load.

The semi, traveling at 65-70 mph, made it one-third of the way across the bridge, tearing some of its vertical steel members, state bridge engineer Terry Udland said.

“It hit it so hard it knocked the excavator off the flatbed,” he said.

The pricetag for the repair after the March 2012 hit was about $500,000. Ketterling said a repair plan to address the July, September and November strikes is in the works. Repair costs for the current damage are expected to be between $500,000 and $1 million, Transportation Department spokesperson Jamie Olson said.


Preventing strikes

In addition to the permits and routing system, the Transportation Department has taken other steps to reduce bridge strikes.

Olson said detectors were installed about 2.5 miles from the south and north sides of Long X Bridge in January 2013. When loads are overheight, the solar-powered detectors are triggered to flash lights to alert the driver to turn back. Roadside signs also signals drivers that detectors are in place.

Highway Patrol troopers will stop and check a vehicle that appears to be overweight or over dimension, going as far as verifying the measurements, Mehrer said. Any infractions will be issued a citation “on the spot,” and drivers will be given an approved route.

To help “educate the industry,” Mehrer said permitting and annual inspection seminars are offered in communities across the state through the Bismarck-based North Dakota Motor Carriers Association.

Workshops also are offered by the North Dakota Truck-Weight Education and Outreach Program.

“Every strike that we’ve had has been preventable,” Mehrer said. “Our goal: We want to see traffic and these goods move safely up and down our roads.”

Truck driver Utopian Lamar, who hauls gravel, water and pipe for a McGregor, N.D.-based company, said he would be embarrassed if he struck a bridge.


“It’s a lack of being professional. I think it’s carelessness, not paying attention,” the Indiana man said. “You should know your route before you go.”

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