The Associated Press April 25, 2011, 8:42PM ET

No driving range in ND Highway Patrol budget

North Dakota's Highway Patrol will get new personnel for truck inspections in a budget approved by the state House on Monday, although the agency will have to wait for a new emergency driver track and gun range.

The $46 million, two-year budget was endorsed by the House, 84-6, after negotiators from the House and Senate agreed on the plan earlier Monday. The Senate is expected to approve the budget, possibly as early as Tuesday.

The budget adds two new troopers to enforce truck weight regulations in western North Dakota, where patrol officials say inspectors are swamped by an influx of traffic from oil and energy development.

The patrol's superintendent, Col. James Prochniak, said stepping up enforcement against overweight trucks would reduce damage to roads in North Dakota's oil country. The Legislature recently approved spending almost $371 million to repair state and local roads in the region.

The two new officers will be finished with training and in the field by late December, Prochniak said Monday.

"This will give us enough people to make sure trucks are running legally and not beating up the roads to the extent they are today," Prochniak said.

The panel decided not to follow Gov. Jack Dalrymple's recommendation to spend $3.6 million for an indoor gun range and a new driving course for emergency vehicles that would have been used by agencies from across the state.

Both projects would've been built near a landfill in eastern Bismarck, where the city is offering free land.

The Senate wanted to build a $2 million vehicle course, but not a gun range, and the House didn't want either one. The two sides agreed to study the project and consider it again in 2013.

Bill Wocken, Bismarck's city administrator, said he expects the land will still be available in two years.

"In the spirit of compromise, we were willing to wait on the driving range, so long as we got the extra troopers we need so badly," said Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot.

The Highway Patrol does its driver training in a Bismarck State College parking lot that patrol officials say is too small and unsafe.

Since the patrol began using the lot in 2003, Bismarck State has grown, an adjacent aquatics center was built and the neighboring Bismarck Community Bowl football stadium was remodeled, said Lt. Mike Gerhart, the course's manager.

Gerhart said he often has to schedule training sessions more than a year in advance to avoid conflicts with other events. Students walk across the parking lot, he said, and the curbs installed could make a car flip if a driver loses control in training.

"When we started there, that lot was used primarily for training. But over the years, the things around it have expanded, and there gets to be a lot of civilian traffic there," Gerhart said. "That can be a serious safety hazard."

Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, chairman of a North Dakota House Appropriations subcommittee that reviews the budgets of most state agencies, said there may be better sites for an emergency vehicle driving course that wouldn't require new construction.

Lawmakers should also consider putting a facility for emergency driver training in each half of the state instead of requiring all trainees to travel to Bismarck, he said.

"Centralization is all right, but since law enforcement is all over the state, we should look at making it reasonable for them to train," Thoreson said.

The budget also includes $1.2 million for upgrading digital radio equipment.


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