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Traffic, housing Oil Patch concerns

STANLEY, N.D.

STANLEY, N.D. - Stacy Coughlin feels so bad about the lack of housing in western North Dakota that she created an apartment in her home here for a worker from Texas.

Marilyn Ru-dolph kisses the ground each time she makes it safely back to Williston after driving among big trucks during trips to and from Minot.

Jed Rider is tired of his school bus being run off the road and tailgated along his route near Alexander in the heart of the Oil Patch.

Affordable housing and traffic safety are key concerns among northwestern North Dakota residents as they grapple with the benefits and challenges of the oil boom.

State officials were in Williston, Stanley and Tioga on Wednesday to hear about these challenges to determine how the state can help ease the burden. These were the first stops of what will be a 14-city tour of western North Dakota.

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The goal of the meetings is to create a greater understanding of the region's oil impacts, coordinate local and state responses and provide updates on the state's current efforts to help, said Commerce Commissioner Al Anderson.

About 50 people attended the first meeting in Williston, where state officials began by emphasizing the work that has been done so far. The state has committed a $1.2 billion investment in the oil- and gas-producing counties and still has the majority of the money to help resolve some of the challenges, Anderson said.

Traffic safety was an immediate issue brought up by area residents at the meeting. Linda Hancock of Alamo is concerned about truckers who don't stop.

"They pull out in front of you like you don't exist," she said. "They don't care if you're there or not. What can we do to get them to stop at stop signs?"

Col. James Prochniak of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said his agency is using aircraft to help with intersection patrol.

"When we capture a truck going through and they hear it was done by the plane, it really gets them talking on their radios," he said. "Obviously, there are a lot of intersections. We don't have enough people to cover them all. I hear the concern."

Rider, the school bus driver, said he was "so mad I'm shaking" as he told officials about the challenges of driving a bus safely in the Oil Patch.

Prochniak said the Highway Patrol has launched a trooper-on-the-bus program and has been "bowled over with requests." He said he would work to arrange a trooper for Rider's bus.

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"We would like to get right to that location and send a loud and clear message," he said. "I empathize with what you're going through, especially the responsibility that you have and the precious cargo that you're carrying. This is stuff that we need to hear."

The housing crunch in the western part of the state was also a big topic.

The national media portray the Oil Patch as a place to go to get a job, but people show up by train or bus and find no place to live, said Tom Rolfstad, executive director of Williston Economic Development.

Business owners also face challenges in finding places to open their businesses, affording higher rent and trying to get employees, he said.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 job openings in the area, Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said.

More people like Don and Millie Hull from Rigby, Idaho, are coming to Williston every day after getting word about these jobs.

The couple arrived on Tuesday in hopes of finding work for Don, 34. Millie, 33, and their children will remain in Idaho due to the housing crunch in western North Dakota.

"This is the best opportunity we could hope for in our economic situation," Millie said. "To make the kind of money he could make in an entry-level position (here), he would have to work two jobs at home anyway."

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She was hopeful he could find a job where he would work a few weeks straight and then have time to return home to Idaho on his days off.

Despite the challenges, Koeser said he believes Williston will be a better community in the next three to five years.

"It's going to be a challenge for us for a while," he said. "We will get through it. You gotta take it one day at a time."

The state agencies will continue meetings in the northwestern part of the state today and Friday. Additional meetings in other oil cities are tentatively scheduled for the fourth week in January.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

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