Posted 11/17/15 (Tue)
By Neal A. Shipman
Watford City and McKenzie County residents are adamant that U.S. Highway 85 running south of Watford City needs to be four-laned to improve traffic safety and to enhance economic development. But more importantly, the Long X Bridge, which crosses the Little Missouri River south of the entrance to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, has to be replaced with a structure capable of handling today’s traffic.
That was the message representatives of the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) and the engineering firm of KLJ heard loud and clear at a public scoping meeting in Watford City on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
While the NDDOT and the Federal Highway Administration have no immediate construction plans for improving U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to I-94, last Tuesday’s scoping meeting was the first step in the process.
According to Matt Linneman, project manager for the NDDOT, the scoping meeting was the first step of developing an Environmental Impact Statement for the project.
While construction may be years away, that didn’t stop area residents like Roger Chinn, a Grassy Butte rancher, from weighing in on the need for the highway to be improved.
“The only thing worse than living on a four-lane highway is living on a two-lane highway that has four-lane traffic,” stated Chinn, who owns land that would be acquired for the widening of the current two-lane road.
Linneman acknowledged that increased traffic on U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City was one of the major reasons that the NDDOT is looking at making major improvements to the highway.
“That portion of U.S. Highway 85 is a major corridor for oil and gas development,” stated Linneman. “It is just one of three paved roads running north of I-94 in western North Dakota.”
However, according to Linneman, two areas of the proposed project (the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Long X Bridge, which is protected under the National Historic Preservation Act) will create unique challenges to the project.
“We need to be sensitive to the noise and visual impacts that the new roadway will have on the visitors to the national park and the national grasslands,” stated Linneman. “And we need to be aware that the Long X Bridge is a historic structure.”
While all in attendance at the meeting recognized the need to be sensitive to the issues of the national park and the national grasslands, many believed that the project could be designed to mitigate impacts on the park and the park’s visitors.
“I’ve just returned from a trip to Canada,” stated Denton Zubke, District 39 Representative. “Many Canadian parks, like Banff, have four-lane divided highways running through them. Not many people come up here to see the historic Long X Bridge. They come to see the park.”
For Keith Kempenich, District 39 Representative, expanding the highway to four lanes would enhance the driving experience through the Badlands and provide for safer travel.
“No one wants to see this part of the country destroyed,” stated Kempenich. “You have to have progress and four-laning U.S. 85 would bring safety to that road. You can’t drive through the Badlands now and enjoy the scenery. You have to concentrate on driving.”
But when it came to the Long X Bridge, the common consensus was the bridge had to be replaced with a modern structure that can accommodate today’s traffic.
“This highway is a huge component for economic development in western North Dakota,” stated Cal Klewin, Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association executive director. Since the oil and gas development has happened in western North Dakota, transportation needs have radically changed.”
According to Klewin, the traffic-related deaths on U.S. Highway 85 leads the state, and the Long X Bridge is not able to accommodate the size of trucks that need to pass through it.
“The Long X Bridge, which was built in 1959, is only one of the two bridges crossing the Little Missouri River, and has been hit several times in the last several years,” stated Linneman. “And that has resulted in traffic being rerouted while bridge repairs were made.”
Since 2011, according to Linneman, the Long X Bridge has been hit six times, and has been closed 40 days as a result of those incidents.
“Is the bridge historical or out-of-date?” questioned Bill Bowman, District 39 Senator. In Bismarck, they turned part of an old bridge into a park and memorial. We need a bridge to safely handle the traffic. The bridge has to go.”
According to Linneman, the NDDOT plans to have a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision by the fall of 2017. After that, the project will have to wait for construction funding.