Push is on to four-lane U.S. Highway 85 south
By Neal A. Shipman
The list of groups and individuals that are pushing for the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south from Watford City to Belfield and the junction of I-94 is growing. And last Tuesday, during the annual meeting of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway, which was held in Watford City, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, chimed in that it is time for the state to put tax money generated from oil activity in the Bakken into a fund for enhancements along U.S. Highway 85.
“I really feel that the four-laning of Highway 85 is absolutely necessary,” said Wardner. “I live in Dickinson and the four-laning that was done just five miles to the north on Highway 21 made an incredible difference. For years, we have promoted this as a commerce corridor, which it is. But it did not resonate with some legislators and people who live in the eastern part of the state. We have come to a point now where it’s about a commerce corridor. It’s about a corridor for local traffic that is safe to drive.”
And Wardner’s message was echoed by city and county leaders, who say that the traffic on U.S. Highway is growing and that the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south to I-94 is critical to commerce and safety.
“The increase in traffic in the past year has been phenomenal,” stated Brent Sanford, Watford City mayor. “There are just three ways in and out of McKenzie County, and they are on N.D. Highway 23 and U.S. Highway 85. The four-laning of Highway 85 is critical to our future.”
According to Sanford, the highways were adequate when Watford City had a population of 5,000. But the roads aren’t adequate anymore for the growing community.
“We’re going to be a 15,000 people-sized community based on the number of wells being drilled,” stated Sanford. “The county has 45 percent of the state’s wells.”
And according to Rory Nelson, North Dakota Energy Impact coordinator, the increased oil activity in McKenzie County only points to the need for better roads in the area.
“Going forward, McKenzie and Mountrail counties are going to be the No. 2 largest onshore oil-producing areas in the United States,” stated Nelson. “These two counties will only trail the state of Texas, which is leading the nation in oil production.”
Highway 85, according to Nelson, is going to be a vital transportation corridor that needs to be upgraded to four-lane status.
“We need to establish oil road corridors,” stated Nelson. “But we also need to increase the pipelines because we can’t get the trucks off the roads without pipelines.”
According to Nelson, the impact of oil development is being felt the most intensely in McKenzie County, which accounts for 30 percent of the state’s oil production.
“The rigs are in McKenzie County,” stated Nelson. “Within this region, we are going to see 78 times the number of wells that we have today.”
Likewise, McKenzie County Commissioner Roger Chinn said that continued growth within the county is going to result in increased traffic along U.S. 85.
“We are building 300 housing units every year in our county,” stated Chinn. “We talk about new projects and new gas plants, but how is all that going to get here? It’s going to come up Highway 85. It’s the only way things can get in here. It’s good that we’re starting to take a look at not just the oil industry, but the other effects that are caused by increased traffic.”
While local officials, as well as the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway leaders, are pushing for the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City, that project could be a way off according to Grant Levi, North Dakota Department of Transportation director.
“The state of North Dakota is investing approximately $465 million in 2013 and 2014 on just U.S. Highway 85 corridor improvements alone,” stated Levi. “We are currently four-laning Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston and constructing bypasses around Watford City.”
According to Levi, it is the department’s hope to have all of the work, with the exception of the new bridge across the Missouri River south of Williston, under construction next year.
But according to Levi, the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 going south is going to have some issues, especially where the route passes next to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In addition, the Long X Bridge will need to be replaced.
“The Long X Bridge is structurally sound,” stated Levi. “We will address a replacement bridge, which is our first priority, when the time is appropriate.”
Levi alluded to the fact that developing a purpose and need statement for the four-laning of the highway south will be problematic.
“Right now, we’re working to get the work done that we’ve got funding for,” stated Levi. “Once that work is done, we will have a conversation with the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway on what is the next step.”