Booming Oil Production Creates Pavement and Safety Challenges for TxDOT’s Odessa District
The Power of Petroleum Production: Partnerships, Budget Increases, and New Ideas Accelerate Construction and Support Economy in Odessa District
Located in the middle of the Permian Basin, one of the fastest-growing areas for petroleum production, the Odessa District of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) faces unique challenges. Roadways intended for ranch-to-market loads are now filled with oversized trucks carrying huge oil rigs, as well as loads of water and sand for hydraulic fracturing.
“The loads associated with these oil wells are just massive and they’re damaging pavement at a phenomenal rate,” said John Speed, P.E., Odessa District Engineer.
As the heavy trucks travel slowly through the area, they also create safety hazards for the growing population. However, local partnerships and innovative ideas are minimizing the risk and creating reliable roadways for continued growth. An expanding budget – thanks to funds the state designates for developing energy sector zones – allows the district to ramp up the number and size of construction and repair projects.
“In the past, this district spent an average of $30 to $40 million per year on construction and another $30 million in maintenance, including staff salaries,” Speed said. While the maintenance budget remains at a similar level, “Last year our construction budget reached $120 million. This year it’s about $250 million; it’ll remain the same in 2019 and probably the year after that.”
Heavy Loads, Broken Pavement
The Odessa District covers 12 counties, with 8,144 lane miles spread over 18,343 square miles in western Texas.
“The Permian Basin has always been a major producer of petroleum products, but now the estimated reserves are much larger because of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” Speed explained. “On any given day, there are about 980 oil rigs operating in the U.S.; about 470 are in the Permian Basin, and the Odessa District is home to most of those. This area produces as much as 2.5 million barrels a day.”
As equipment, supplies, and manpower pour in, “Traffic volumes are growing by leaps and bounds,” Speed said. “We also have much larger, heavier rigs to handle the horizontal drilling. If they’re wide as well, they tear up the edges of the pavement.”
To accommodate hydraulic fracturing in this desert region, oil producers truck in loads of water. “Each of those trucks runs as full as you possibly can get it,” Speed said. “The fracturing process also requires large quantities of sand to prop open the layers of rock and allow oil to flow. Those truckloads of sand are equally heavy and destructive on the road system.”
Despite the challenges, Speed sees a silver lining. “That’s the economy of our region. I want to make the Permian Basin the investment zone of choice for those who produce oil and gas. The best way to do that is to make the roadways functional, safe, and reliable.”
The nature of traffic in the district complicates that task. Many of the heavy trucks drive as slow as 25 miles per hour while other vehicles travel at the posted highway speed of 75 or 80 miles per hour.
Because of the disparity, “The number of traffic accidents out here is higher than the state average by a longshot – in many areas it’s doubled,” Speed said. “The severity of the accidents and the number of fatalities is also much higher. My underlaying passion is to find ways to make the roads safer for the businesses and for the average traveler.”
Partners in Safety
Speed shares that goal with many local partners. “When I came to the district 18 months ago, it was readily apparent that the primary safety risk associated with the cost-effective recovery of petroleum in this area has more to do with trucking and safety on the roadway than the people doing the work in the fields,” he said. “But I didn’t even have to say it out loud because that’s exactly what the oil companies and the truckers were telling me.”
In fact, local oil and gas operators, service companies, and trucking firms formed the Permian Road Safety Coalition in 2015 to identify safety issues and solutions. “These companies put money, time, and effort into helping the DOT identify upcoming work areas and issues that add to their risk profile,” Speed said.
TxDOT, in turn, works with the companies to minimize disruptions while they improve safety. For instance, after traffic on a 60-mile, two-lane corridor of U.S. 285 grew from a couple thousand vehicles to more than 10,000 vehicles a day – largely due to heavy trucks heading to nearby oil wells – TxDOT undertook a series of expansion projects. During one phase of construction, “We pulled our contractors completely off the road after dark,” Speed said. “That allowed the heavy trucks full access to the entire width of roadway so they could move in safely at their own pace.”
In other cases, affected companies pay for projects that tie into TxDOT’s system. “They’ll come to the table and say, ‘I need better access – left-hand turn bays, acceleration and deceleration lanes, ways to reduce the risk profile with my truckers coming in and out,’” Speed explained. “If one of their truckers gets hit, they lose production for an extended period of time.”
Previously, the district allowed companies to donate funding, then TxDOT built the project. “I chose to move away from that, with support from Austin,” Speed said. “I took what I learned working in the private sector with public-private partnerships, and we put together a package for these companies. We provide the necessary standards, then they bring in their own engineer and contractor, along with a pre-approved consultant to oversee quality control. When the private sector pays for it and builds it, they can get it done sometimes in a matter of weeks. It quickly provides us with one less potential conflict point on some very busy roadways.”
So far, a half-dozen projects have been built with this process and another dozen are under consideration or in development with oil producers, sand mines, and other companies.
With the help of contractors, the Odessa District continues to look for new ways to support the growing petroleum industry. For instance, “We’re changing some of our upcoming contracts from a traditional, flexible base to more full-depth hot mix designs in order to get in and out quicker,” Speed said. “We also put a lot of thought and effort into traffic control to keep the heavy vehicles in an area where they aren’t causing erratic driving behaviors around them.”
This year, “Many of our projects are in the western portion of the district in the Delaware Basin that’s currently producing a lot of wells,” Speed said.
In fiscal year 2019, the district will be developing a group of projects around Monahans, Texas, where sand mines are developing. Much of the sand used for hydraulic fracturing currently comes from central Texas or out-of-state. However, “We have dozens of sand mines coming online,” Speed said. “Instead of a roadway system geared to bring that in from outside, it’ll become a more self-contained system as most of the sand can be generated within 100 miles of the wells.”
Speed expects several I-20 projects to let in 2020. “We’re not always using traditional approaches; we’ll take smaller sections and start doing the things that produce safety results – constructing one-way frontage roads so we don’t have as many conflict points, realigning ramps, and building turnarounds so the heavier trucks can move more efficiently on the frontage roads.”
As the work grows, Speed finds himself with a young staff to tackle the challenges. In addition to the nationwide labor shortage, the district lost employees to the oil fields and retirements. “Last year our turnover rate was roughly 25 percent,” Speed said. “Many of our employees are very new, and we’ve had to move younger staff into senior positions.”
A new area engineer directs each of the three district offices. Fred Herrera moved from Odessa to Midland, while Bryan Lutz in Fort Stockton and Saul Romero in Odessa came in new to their positions.
“They all bring experience working in other TxDOT areas,” Speed said. “It’s a great opportunity for new ideas. For example, Bryan brought what he saw in the Tyler District and is reorganizing his maintenance staff to provide a group of specialists to handle areas where the roadway edges are damaged.”
The search for new strategies and the increased budget result in more opportunities for contractors and positive results for the area’s transportation system. “Pavement condition scores had been going down every year since 2012 – until this year,” Speed said. “Efforts by our maintenance staff and contractors over the last year stabilized those scores and we’re now moving our way up.”