NEW TOWN, N.D. — When Brian White put a road project together for his Spokane, Wash., company, he learned housing is one thing money can’t buy in the oil patch.
Acme Construction is tearing out 4.5 miles of N.D. Highway 23 east of New Town, turning it into a deluxe “super two” with wide shoulders, passing lanes and turnouts at busy intersections.
It will be spiffed up with new concrete overlaid on a shaved-down asphalt base, a process that’s never been tried before on a highway.
It’s a nice piece of work, about $18 million worth, and Acme is glad to have it, he said.
White sees now that the line item Acme figured for housing was ridiculously low when it put a bid together for the state Department of Transportation.
“We knew that there was a housing issue, but we thought, ‘OK, it couldn’t be more than twice the usual.’ We’re still in the middle of the job, but it’ll be 10 times what we bid,” he said. “When we had this job, I flew home and told ’em it’ll take a bunch more money.”
White said the company could give its employees more housing allowance, but for what?
“It wouldn’t do ’em any good. We couldn’t say, ‘Here’s the work, you figure it out,’” he said.
Instead, the company located a piece of land along the highway, brought in a pair of heavy-duty diesel generators and a 1,000-gallon sewage holding tank, and hooked the whole business to fifth-wheel campers and a pair of mobile homes.
It’s not pretty, but it’s somewhere to eat and sleep.
And it’s a job.
Acme, which normally brings in $70 million annually, didn’t have much on the books until the North Dakota work came through, White said.
Acme employee Scott McDaniel said life in the camp is good enough for him.
“Work’s work. There’s not a lot going on back home,” he said.
The New Town reconstruction is among $305 million in highway projects in western North Dakota this year, more money than has ever been allocated for a single construction season in that region.
That puts hundreds of seasonal highway workers into the region on top of communities bursting at the seams with oil field workers.
Mike Schriner is project manager for Oftedal Construction of Montana and Wyoming. The company is rebuilding 22 miles of N.D. Highway 22 through the Badlands breaks north of Killdeer. The job is in two parts and is worth about $62 million.
His crew is literally knocking buttes down to level and filling in canyons with millions of cubic yards of soil. It’s a huge, noisy job, one that’s literally changing the shape of the landscape.
Schriner’s workers are living “anywhere and everywhere — Beulah, Skunk Bay, Watford City, Killdeer,” he said. “We’ve got guys going 60 miles one way. We’ve got guys living in tents in Little Missouri State Park.”
He said oil companies have jacked rent out of his company’s range. “We can’t compete with them,” Schriner said.
To help, Oftedal has one employee whose full-time job is helping workers find housing in the oil patch. It isn’t easy when trailers in Watford City go for $1,550 a month plus utilities.
“That’s a pretty good chunk of change. This is my first time in North Dakota. It’s crazy, crazy over here,” Schriner said. “This is probably one of the hardest housing deals we’ve ever had. This one here’s a challenge.”
Oftedal and Acme’s housing troubles don’t stem from the fact that they aren’t “from” here. And they’re far from the only out-of-state companies working on the North Dakota highways.
Statewide, the DOT awarded 192 bids for highway construction projects this year. Of those, 103 were awarded to out-of-state companies, the department said. Of the 63 projects just in the oil patch, 32 went to contractors from other states.
Cal Gendreau, director of construction for the DOT, said the number of out-of-state contractors is 20 percent higher than six years ago. He attributes that to the boom economy here, plus declines in other states’ highway programs.
Northern Improvement, a venerable North Dakota name in the highway construction business, is running into the same housing problem.
Northern has three major contracts this season worth $25 million: the Williston bypass, revamping N.D. Highway 22 through Dickinson to the Dunn County line and repaving Old Highway 10 from South Heart to Fryburg.
It’s nice to work at “home,” but finding homes is not so nice.
Northern is in the road industry, not the housing industry, but it set up camper sites in both Dickinson and Williston and partnered with Lake Sakakawea recreation camp facilities for workers on a pipeline project near Keene.
“Without housing, workers might have to sleep in the vehicles. It’s a safety issue; they need their rest,” said Brenda Gierke, Northern’s human resource manager.
Gendreau said bids come in somewhat higher for work in the oil patch compared to other parts of North Dakota.
That’s due to several factors — labor and the higher cost of gravel — not just housing, he said.
“We know they need to cover their housing expenses and it’s built into the bid. We can’t put a finger on it,” Gendreau said.