June 9, 2010


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

“Hill, truck, curve!” That is the way that U.S. Senator Kent Conrad accurately described U.S. Highway 85 during a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee that was held in Watford City last Tuesday. The hearing was called by Conrad to get local testimony on the need to improve the overall safety conditions of Highway 85 and ultimately, get the road upgraded to a four-lane highway. But Kent Pelton, Watford City mayor, was even more blunt as he called Highway 85 “one of the bloodiest highways in North Dakota.”
Both Conrad and Pelton are right.
U.S. Highway 85 in McKenzie County is rapidly becoming one of the most unsafe highways in North Dakota due the tremendous amount of oil field traffic that is using it on a daily basis and because of its hilly and winding nature. But the same thing can be said of most of the other state highways, as well as the other county and township roads in the heart of the oil patch, whether they be in McKenzie, Mountrail or Dunn counties.
A quick look at the level of traffic using U.S. Highway 85 reveals a very troubling trend and why this highway warrants even more improvements than the North Dakota Dept. of Transportation (NDDOT) has committed to.
• From 2005 the number of trucks that use Highway 85 has increased from 360 to 520 trucks a day, a 44 percent increase. And as more and more oil wells are completed, the number of these large trucks is only going to increase.
• In 2005, 10,700 overweight and/or overheight permits were issued to trucks on roadways in or along Highway 85. By 2009, the number of these permits had grown to more than 26,000, and in 2010, the number is expected to exceed 60,000.
• In McKenzie County alone, in 2000 there were 86 motor vehicle accidents with one fatality. In 2009, according to the Sheriff’s Dept., there were 168 motor vehicle accidents with eight fatalities.
• And according to Francis Ziegler, director of the NDDOT, the actual traffic count in the Watford City area is currently between 2,600 and 2,800 vehicles per day, and that the state’s roadways are deteriorating faster than the department had expected.
While the NDDOT is already doing some work converting portions of U.S. Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City into a Super 2, which will provide for passing and turning lanes, as well as improving U.S. Highway 85 through the Badlands, those improvements should just be the beginning of more extensive road work.
And to accomplish making the improvements that are necessary to adequately handle the oil traffic that is going to be here for years to come and to move that traffic safely, all of U.S. Highway 85 within North Dakota needs to be upgraded.
In order to make the necessary improvements, it is going to take the support of our Congressional delegation to ensure the funding for this highway is included in future Federal highway programs. But more importantly, it is going to take the realization by our state’s governor and other elected officials, as well as the NDDOT that U.S. Highway 85 has become as important to the state’s transportation system as any of the state’s Interstate highways. And that improving this highway is critical to support its rapidly expanding use.
Not only is U.S. Highway 85 the primary highway for the transportation of much of the 400,000 barrels of oil that are currently being produced daily from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota, but it also serves as the major link to six of the nation’s main east-west highway systems and is the main north-south traffic artery between Canada and Mexico.
Senator Conrad is to be commended for coming to Watford City to make sure that this area’s comments and concerns regarding U.S. Highway 85 be made part of the official record of the Senate Budget Hearing process.
While the improvements that the NDDOT are going to be making to Highway 85 over the next several years will undoubtedly help, in reality these improvements need to be only a starting point.
The traffic growth on U.S. Highway 85 that serves the oil patch in the past five years has been absolutely unprecedented both in the size and number of vehicles. And if the projections of the number of new wells to be drilled within the next five to 10 years is accurate, the volume of traffic in this region of the state is going to need a much improved highway system.