Posted 1/27/15 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
While the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) is currently conducting a safety review of the newly-opened four-lane section of U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to north of Alexander, the department is moving forward with the installation of interim lighting and messaging signs at key intersections on this busy highway.
The safety review by the state was initiated after the McKenzie County Commissioners sent a letter to NDDOT officials, as well as other state officials in early January, expressing concern with the number of motor vehicle accidents that have occurred in the county since the new four-lane highway opened.
According to Joel Wilt, NDDOT Williston District engineer, a safety review committee, comprised of 18 individuals with representation from Watford City, the Sheriff’s Office, the Highway Patrol, the Federal Highway, and engineers from the DOT - including people from the traffic operations group, met in Williston Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 13, to review the entire corridor, including the intersection of Highways 68 and 85.
“The group met in Williston,” said Wilt. “We then got into three vans and drove the entire corridor. We stopped at multiple intersections including the intersection of Highways 68 and 85. The following day, the committee submitted a list of suggestions, which were submitted for safety review in Bismarck.”
“The Bismarck office will evaluate each different traffic scenario along with current traffic numbers,” stated Wilt. “It will take some time, possibly two to three months, before a final report is released.”
According to Wilt, the safety review in Bismarck will be looking at interim solutions, which are neither short-term nor long-term goals. If the final report indicates that a design change needs to take place at any one portion of the corridor, it will involve a process to do so, and that will take time.
In the meantime, the installation of interim roadway lights at several U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. 23 intersections in the Watford City area started taking place on Tuesday, Jan. 20, with the first light installed at the northwest connection, according to Wilt.
“We are looking at signage right now,” said Wilt. “We’ve had a number of recent complaints from individuals about not knowing where to turn off Highway 85 to get to Watford City. We are looking at what we can do to improve that.”
According to Wilt, dynamic message signs were put up by the end of last week near the intersection of Highways 85 and 68. In addition, Wilt said a speed study was conducted in that specific area, and that the speed posted meets federal guidelines. The study found that 85 percent of traffic is moving there; therefore, no speed reduction signs will go up at the present time, as was requested by several county officials in response to the high number of fatalities at that intersection.
“We were asked for speed reductions at that intersection,” said Wilt. “But that can create other road hazards with increased traffic congestion. However, everything that was brought up in the safety review meeting is on the table. Once a decision is reached in Bismarck, a final report will be made and shared with the safety review committee.”
According to Wilt, the entire U.S. Highway 85 corridor was built as a 20-year traffic project. He says in that 20 years, traffic volumes and patterns may change, and a great deal depends on the development that takes place along the corridor over that time-frame.
“We do routine studies every year,” says Wilt. “And our roads meet federal standards. We can only design roads to be so safe though. It comes down to driver behavior. I can’t engineer a road that takes the ‘driver control’ factor out of that. But we take every accident very seriously.”
Of the fatalities that took place in 2014 on the U.S. Highway 85 corridor between Grassy Butte and just north of Alexander, 57 percent were not wearing their seat belts, according to Wilt.
U.S. Highway 85 was made into a four-lane roadway to accommodate the increasing traffic volume. But Wilt feels that there is a misconception that people think once a two-lane highway is turned into a four-lane highway, it’s automatically going to be a new and safe roadway, with less accidents. He thinks that despite the safety measures taken, the road and driving hazards will remain.
Over the past couple of years, the NDDOT has increased the number of operators they have working, have gotten better equipment including four new tow plows, and they have been increasing the size of their trucks. These measures were taken in preparation for more four-lane highways throughout western North Dakota.
“Our district got more money than the other districts because we had a lot more money being spent on construction than any of the other districts,” said Wilt. “The state made a huge investment on equipment for us. When I first started with the DOT about 13 years ago, we received about $17 million for our annual budget. As of this past year, that has increased to over $500 million.”
With a safety review currently underway in Bismarck, the installation of interim roadway lights at the various U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. 23 intersections in the Watford City area, temporary dynamic messaging signs going up around the Highways 85 and 68 intersection, and additional law enforcement saturation patrols in the area, the NDDOT feels that they are being proactive in taking the safety measures necessary to address the roadway safety concerns the community has been publicly vocal over in recent months.
“Our mission is safely moving people and goods,” said Wilt. “And we strive to meet that mission. We take every accident very seriously, and one life lost is one too many. We also make sure to meet all Federal safety standards when designing and building the roads.”