Growing pains strike as oil booms

North Dakota airports in the heart of the Bakken oil boom rush to meet escalating demands by putting improvement projects on the fast track

North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom bears a strong likeness to the California Gold Rush. In both cases, the discovery of a hot commodity spurred a feverish migration of workers to a sparsely populated area.

Today as rig workers, roughnecks and roustabouts flock to North Dakota to work on its nearly 200 drilling rigs, the explosion of activity has tapped more than the oil fields themselves. And, as communities in the heart of the oil patch find themselves in a frenzy to match infrastructure to the demands of a burgeoning population, the region’s airports struggle with the same.

Airports in western North Dakota rank among the fastest growing in the United States and have set passenger boarding records month after month for three straight years. As a result, many need tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure upgrades, according to Kyle Wanner, aviation planner with the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. The oil boom, he says, has delivered passenger traffic volumes that many state airports are ill-equipped to handle.

Consider Minot International Airport. This airport’s 34,000-square-foot terminal, complete with two gates and small ramp, was designed to handle up to 100,000 passenger boardings per year. But today this airport sees nearly 220,000 enplanements annually.

Business is also booming at Sloulin Field International Airport, where in September the Williston-based airport saw a 247 percent jump in enplanements over September 2012; traffic this airport, located in the epicenter of the oil boom, was never meant to see, emphasizes Airport Manager Steven Kjergaard.

“Our terminal was built to handle approximately 8,000 people a year,” he stresses, “and we’re doing that in a month!”

Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport services western North Dakota, eastern Montana and northwest South Dakota, and it too doubled its traffic within two years. “We have about 50,000 passengers coming through every year; nearly three times the capacity the terminal is designed to handle,” says Matthew Remynse, Dickinson airport manager. “Our terminal is designed for 36,000 passengers a year, and set up for one regional jet at a time.”

The growing pains these airports are wrestling with are becoming as commonplace as the oil rigs themselves, says Wanner, who notes airports are hard hit as droves of job seekers flock to the region. Most North Dakota airports were never designed to handle the volumes of traffic they are now, he explains, and must find a way to fund sorely needed projects and put them on the fast track to completion.

“They needed these improvements yesterday,” says Wanner. “Growth problems are usually a good thing to have, but you want that growth to be 3 to 5 percent a year, so you can plan for needed infrastructure changes. When your growth is 50 to 100 percent in a year, it strains the entire system.”


Fast track the future

The State of North Dakota stakes a claim to 11.5 cents of every dollar the oil industry earns, which has produced revenues of more than $2 billion to date. The state designates a portion of these funds for infrastructure improvements that include new roads, hospitals and schools, and airport, water and sewer updates.

Recently, the state government earmarked $60 million of this money to improve airports in western North Dakota; $28 million of which has already been allocated to specific projects.

Minot airport emerged the big winner in this money “lottery.” The airport received $21 million to offset the costs of a $85 million terminal revamp program, which includes a new passenger terminal building, apron and access road improvements, moving the snow removal building, and connecting Taxiway D to the apron. Airport Director Andrew Solsvig says the airport was able to quickly jump on the state funding opportunity because officials had begun work on the proposed projects long before they knew how they would pay for them. He explains when things began rocking and rolling in 2011, and airport traffic doubled, the airport assembled a stakeholder group to hasten a terminal area study.

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