Duke Study States the Obvious About Road Repair Costs, Ignores Fact that Improvements Have Been Made

A new Duke University study on estimated costs of road damages from trucks transporting Marcellus fracking waste quantifies issues that Pennsylvania residents are well aware of — namely that increased truck traffic has resulted in the deterioration of state and local roads that were already ranked third worst in the U.S. in 2010.

But the report fails to note these issues are already being corrected or mitigated — a big reason Pennsylvania did not even make the top-10 list of states with the worst roads in 2015.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when reading the study.

Fact #1: The industry has spent millions of dollars on road repairs.

The study analyzed the various forms of waste produced from natural gas development in Pennsylvania from July 2010 until December 2013. Upon estimating an average load size and weight, routes to facilities and number of trips occurring from a well pad, the authors concluded that during this time period “the estimated cost to repair roads damaged by trucks transporting unconventional oil and gas waste ranged from $3 million to $18 million.”

While that figure may initially seem high, some perspective is in order. From 2008 to 2011 alone, the industry paid over $411 million in road repairs across the state. Kathryn Klaber, former president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, issued the following statement when those figures were published:

“Preparing and restoring roads associated with Marcellus development is a responsibility that our coalition members take very seriously. We understand and recognize the concerns regarding the increase in truck traffic and its impact on our roads. And we also understand, as good neighbors, that we must do everything to ensure that we leave these roads in better condition than when our operations started. This $411 million industry investment in our roads since 2008 is just one example of the natural gas industry addressing local concerns in a direct and straightforward manner. It’s an investment that will continue to grow as responsible shale gas development continues across the Commonwealth.”

In 2013 that amount had grown to over $500 million. If the high-end estimate of $18 million in this Duke study is accurate, then as of 2013 the industry exceeded this amount of investment by 2,700 percent.

Fact #2: The number one use of impact fee monies goes toward infrastructure improvements, including road repairs.

Aside from infrastructure repairs the industry funds directly, the impact fee that was signed into law in 2012 also generates a substantial amount of money for municipalities for road repairs — whether the industry uses the roads or not. The authors of the study do mention this, explaining that this is where the bulk of the money from repairs comes from. But they also claim the fact that counties with development within their borders receive more money than non-shale counties from this fee is somehow a negative.

But this allocation actually makes sense. As the study correctly describes, the bulk of road damage is located in counties with shale development, although damage can occur in other counties where trucks travel through on their way from a well pad to waste disposal. It also noted,

“Because facilities in the UOG area can be accessed from multiple directions and different roads, the impact of heavy truck traffic is spread between more roads than for facilities outside the UOG area, to which traffic is eventually funneled to fewer roads.”

In other words, in areas with shale development there is more likelihood that more roads will be impacted.

And that’s what Act 13 money is predominantly being used for. According to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), counties spent more than $4.9 million on public infrastructure construction in 2014 alone, which includes road repairs, and municipalities spent more than $34.5 million.

ImpactFeeFundsSpent2014

As a result of the 2014 disbursement for wells drilled in 2013, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported:

“Thanks to Marcellus shale drilling impact fee money, Washington Township is able to catch up on bills and projects this summer. The township’s paving projects were completed with $85,000 of the $310,000 impact fee money. ‘The projects are finished,’ said Rich Gardner, chairman of the township supervisors. ‘That was just what we needed to pay the final bills.’ Gardner said the impact fee money was more than officials expected or budgeted for, which allowed them to catch up on paving that had been put off.”

As for counties that don’t have wells — well, they get portions of the annual distribution as well. In fact, York County, which is outside of the Marcellus but likely experiences some of the traffic issues described in the report, has received nearly $2 million since distributions began.

Fact #3: The industry uses bonded roads for its transportation needs.

Finally, it’s important to note that in Pennsylvania and other states, the industry must adhere to bonding laws to be able to travel the roadways there. PennDOT alone maintains roughly 40,000 miles of bonded roads, which in 2013 cost the industry:

  • $6,000 per mile on unpaved roads
  • $12,500 per mile on paved roads
  • $10,000 for Type 3 county and municipality permits

These bonds are to help the state pay for damages incurred from the increased travel in the event the industry or Act 13 money would not cover the repairs, and these amounts are equal for any trucks on the road regardless of industry.

Conclusion

Marcellus-related truck traffic has significantly decreased in recent years for many reasons like improved technology, increased water recycling, increased use of water pipelines, and a slow down of activity. And while this study was interesting in that it quantified an issue that every person living in shale country complained about at least once — myself included — during the study’s time frame, it failed to note that road conditions have improved dramatically since 2013, thanks in large part to industry funding.

As a result of this, many of our roads have been improved to far better conditions than they were prior to the industry repairing them, something those of us living in rural Pennsylvania are very grateful for.

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