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Posted 2/24/15 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

When most people talk about the impacts that the oil industry has had on Watford City and McKenzie County, they talk about the obvious - the 10-fold increase in population, a swelling school population, the lack of affordable housing, and the struggle that the city and the county has in building the roads and water and sewer systems to meet the needs of all of the new people and businesses that are moving into the area.
Yes, those are indeed problems. But they are also problems that the city, county and school systems are hard at work at fixing. Both the city and county are spending millions of dollars to build new roads and needed infrastructure to help meet the growing population. And our school districts are expanding their existing facilities and building new schools as fast as they can to take care of the influx in new students.
But the one conversation that isn’t getting the attention that it deserves is the serious problem that McKenzie County has with traffic fatalities that are a direct result of the increased oilfield traffic.
This week, the North Dakota Department of Transportation released its annual Crash Report on major North Dakota highways. And as was no surprise to McKenzie County’s law enforcement agencies, fire departments and ambulance crews, who respond to every vehicle accident in the county, McKenzie County once again in 2014, held the unenviable position of having the most traffic fatalities in the state.
To put it mildly, the number of people that died on U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. 23 in McKenzie County is more than alarming. It is tragic. During the course of 2014, with the possibility that some data for the past two months was not recorded, the county saw 21 fatal traffic accidents with 24 fatalities. Eleven of those fatal accidents were on U.S. Highway 85, while the rest were either on N.D. Highway 23 or on some other state or county roadway.
To put those fatalities into perspective, there were eight fatalities on U.S. Highway 2, six on I-29, four on I-94, three on U.S. Highway 83, and two each on U.S. 52 and U.S. Highway 281. In other words, McKenzie County had almost as many fatalities as all of these major state highways combined.
But it isn’t just the fatalities. It is also all of the people who were injured and vehicles that were damaged that make this year’s crash report so sobering.
McKenzie County and Watford City officials have long called for the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston, which is seeing the greatest increase in oilfield traffic. Fortunately, that four-laning is nearing completion. But more is needed to be done by the state of North Dakota to make sure that the state roadways in McKenzie County are safe.  
The county wants to build a northern tier road that will connect N.D. Highway 23 and U.S. Highway 85 that will relieve some of the traffic congestion. But in order to do that, it needs the Surge Funding  from the Legislature, as well as a shift in the state’s Gross Production Tax that will funnel more money to the county for these types of projects.
The state of North Dakota has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the roads in the state’s oil patch. For that, we are thankful. But there is so much more that needs to be done to improve the driving conditions. We need wider roads with longer passing lanes, better signing and better lighting at intersections.
The amount of traffic in McKenzie County isn’t going down. It’s going up, and U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. Highway 23 are feeling the brunt of this traffic increase. According to state figures, Watford City has the second highest traffic volume statistic in the state, and nearly 16,000 vehicles a day are passing through the U.S. Highway 85 bypass junction on the south side of Watford City. Only one other location, which is located west of Fargo on I-94 which sees 17,400 vehicles per day, has a higher traffic count.
McKenzie County can, and is proud, of a lot of things. But leading the state in the number of traffic fatalities is not one of them!