June 9, 2010

Sen. Conrad hears U.S. Highway 85 concerns

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

If Senator Kent Conrad and the majority of those in attendance at last week’s Senate Budget Committee Hearing had their way, work to turn U.S. Highway 85 between Williston and Bowman into a four-lane highway would begin immediately. However, it takes a lot more than a general consensus at one meeting to make a project that big to come to fruition.
On June 1, Senator Kent Conrad convened an official field hearing of the Senate Budget Committee to learn more about the deteriorating conditions of U.S. Highway 85. This is the third hearing Senator Conrad has chaired regarding this stretch of road and its worsening state caused by a significant increase in use due to the oil boom in western North Dakota.
“This stretch of Highway 85 has become one of the bloodiest roads in the state,” said Kent Pelton, Watford City mayor.
As the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations continue to grow, so does the amount of heavy truck traffic along Highway 85. For most rural areas, including McKenzie County, an increase in anything that generates revenue is welcome. The only problem with this recent increase is that area roads just can’t take it.
“With the significant oil finds in western North Dakota, it’s clear that our state will be a major player in fueling the nation for years to come,” stated Conrad. “In order to make that a reality – and to ensure the safety of the local community – Highway 85 needs upgrading. The information gathered from this hearing will help me make the case to my Senate colleagues that improvements to this critical roadway are in the best interest of North Dakota and the nation.”
It was Conrad’s hope that the meeting would give him firsthand knowledge of the situation for a meeting with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, which was scheduled for later in the week.
“My plan is to leave no stone unturned,” added Conrad. “All of  us know that more needs to be done. As Senator, I need to focus on these needs and urge everyone in Washington to help.”
Conrad and Congressman Earl Pomeroy spent well over an hour listening to testimony from Francis Ziegler, North Dakota Department of Transportation director, Kent Pelton, Watford City mayor, Ron Rankin, McKenzie County sheriff, Bruce Erickson, operations manager for Rugged West Trucking, and Gene Veede, McKenzie County Job Development Authority.
While Ziegler presented the group with facts including traffic counts, construction plans and construction costs, testimony from the rest of the group came from those who drive U.S. Highway 85 on a regular basis.
“I was a teacher for 20 years,” stated Erickson. “All those years, I drove buses carrying very precious cargo, on Highway 85. Today I work four miles south of Watford City on Highway 85 near an infamous intersection that has a near miss or mishap at least once every day. And in addition to the trucks driving that highway are those same buses carrying that same precious cargo. Something needs to be done to make these roads safer.”
According to Ziegler, North Dakota plans to spend $66 million on highways in oil country between now and 2013.
“We have plans in place for repair work as well as added turn lanes and wider shoulders, which will turn this stretch of highway into a Super 2 highway,” added Ziegler.
Ziegler admitted that his department is seeing a lot of infrastructure needs throughout the state, including some on highways in the state that see more traffic than Highway 85.
“I don’t mean to slight Highway 85, but as the director, I am looking at the whole state,” said Ziegler. “However, with all of the driving around on area highways, it’s already being discussed that with so many trucks, some of the summer’s planned work may not be adequate.”
As the meeting ended, many in attendance discussed with little optimism, how nice it would be if Highway 85 was turned into a four-lane highway. Unfortunately, most of the discussion focused on Ziegler’s statement that a four-lane road would cost $2 million per mile.