Posted 1/06/15 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
The four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston was supposed to be part of a solution that would bring safer driving conditions to one of the busiest stretches of highway in North Dakota
But a rash of accidents in a three-month period following the opening of the four-lane segment of U.S. Highway 85 from Watford to Alexander has McKenzie County officials, as well as area emergency responders, concerned.
“I think a safety review of U.S. Highway 85 is needed all the way from Watford City to Highway 200, north of Alexander,” said Watford City Fire Chief Oscar Knudtson. “I haven’t felt safe on that stretch of road for the past four years.”
Since October of 2014, six fatalities have occurred on U.S. Highway 85 on the newly-opened four-lane highway. And now, local officials are calling for the state to conduct a safety review to determine why the accidents are occurring.
Karolin Rockvoy, McKenzie County Emergency Services manager, has been in the forefront of the county’s concern about safety issues on U.S. Highway 85. She has met with North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) officials and requested that the state conduct a safety review of the entire four-lane highway.
“The new four-lane highway is a great addition, and there are many benefits,” said Rockvoy. “However, along with those benefits, it has created more risks and hazards that need to be addressed immediately. It’s not just the intersection of U.S. Highway 85 and 68 either. There are many places along Highway 85 that are dangerous.”
According to Knudtson, there are a number of reasons that have led to the high statistic of motor vehicle accidents on Highway 85.
“Some of the reasons include speed, no separation of opposing lanes, icy conditions, lack of delineation of lanes (visibility), and confusion on turning versus passing lanes,” said Knudtson. “There are some blind spots at the junction of N.D. 68 and Highway 85. There’s bad lighting or lack of lighting and inadequate signage at intersections. Add into the mix fatigue, texting, alcohol and/or drug use and lack of seat belt use. All are factors in the high number of motor vehicle accidents on Highway 85.”
With the influx of people into the Bakken over the past several years, development has popped up, virtually everywhere, which in turn brings an increase in the road traffic.
“There’s more development to come out here,” said Rockvoy. “It’s happened so fast in McKenzie County; and with all the development that has already taken place and the development that is still to come, it’s going to continue to increase the traffic. It’s a public health and safety issue. And I want to work collectively with the DOT in moving forward.”
As a result of Rockvoy’s call for a broader assessment and safety review of Highway 85, road safety reviews and increased law enforcement patrols led by the NDDOT and the North Dakota Highway Patrol began taking place on U.S. Highway 85 in late December, and will continue into January and February 2015.
However, Rockvoy doesn’t believe the state is taking the county’s concerns seriously.
“The NDDOT says they are going to start and do these things,” says Rockvoy. “However, the NDDOT is not producing.”
In a Dec. 29 news release from the NDDOT, it was stated that the NDDOT started initial review in early December. Rockvoy says this is not true.
According to Rockvoy, she had contacted Joel Wilt, Williston District engineer, on Dec. 16, requesting an immediate meeting to discuss a more comprehensive safety review, in which Wilt informed her that ‘they’d get to it after the New Year.’ Rockvoy was not satisfied by this response nor with waiting until after the New Year to address the concerns, so with additional persistence, a meeting with Williston’s DOT office was set for that week.
From this meeting, according to Rockvoy, $500,000 worth of lighting will be installed in several places along the corridor temporarily, until permanent lighting can be installed sometime around June or July 2015.
The NDDOT then released a press release on Dec. 19, saying that the NDDOT and Watford City officials were working together on a project that would involve installing additional roadway light structures on 23 intersections of the U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. Highway 23 corridors.
“It’s good that they are going to put up temporary lights in Watford City,” said Lance Powell, Alexander fire chief. “But I’m upset that they aren’t putting up any lights or signage at the intersection of U.S. 85 and N.D. 68, where the main issue lies.”
With the serious safety issues along the entire U.S. Highway 85 corridor, Rockvoy feels that there needs to be more signage, permanent overhead lighting, signal lights and flashing yellow lights, in addition to lowered speed limits in specific areas.
“I think lowered speed limits at the junction of N.D. 68 and U.S. 85 would help,” said Knudtson. “There also needs to be a law enforcement presence in that area, along with better signage and lighting at all of the major and some other intersections off the U.S. 85 four-lane corridor. There needs to be some type of separation or barrier between the opposing four lanes. A hard look at the design of that area around the Wild Bison Truck Stop needs to take place, and there needs to be better all-weather highly visible striping on the roads and the turning lanes.”
Another major concern, according to Powell, is the lack of a cable or rail system, dividing the four-lane highway, which would keep vehicles from crossing over into the other lane. It is an immediate need he feels must be addressed. Along with lighting and decreased speed limits, especially at the approaches going into Alexander and blind corners like the corner-intersection of Highway 85 and N.D. 68.
Rockvoy also says part of the problem lies with the drivers themselves.
“People get on the road and make poor choices,” says Rockvoy. “They choose to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. They choose to not wear seat belts. Personal responsibility also needs to be addressed.”
From January 2014 until the middle of December, Watford City firefighters responded to 143 motor vehicle accidents, according to Knudtson, which was just under half of their total calls. Alexander firefighters responded to 37 motor vehicle accidents, as of Dec. 15. And that doesn’t include the Keene or Arnegard fire department’s motor vehicle accident numbers.
“I will say that the bulk of our motor vehicle accidents are on U.S. 85,” said Knudtson. “And the worst seem to be between Arnegard and Alexander. The fatality numbers are staggering for a small stretch of road. Add to that just the number and frequency of injury accidents and non-injury accidents on that stretch - it’s a statistic that is not even looked at.”
According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, they increased law enforcement efforts on U.S. 85 this past year and will conduct additional law enforcement saturations over the next few weeks.
“The Highway Patrol remains committed to traffic safety,” said Colonel Gerhart with the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “Our agency works hard to influence and educate motorists to drive safely. Our greatest partner in traffic safety is the motoring public, and together we can make a positive difference.”
Some of the state safety procedures currently taking place on U.S. 85 include conducting a comprehensive review to evaluate the new U.S. 85 corridor between Williston and Watford City for traffic movement and safety enhancements, completing additional law enforcement saturation patrols in the area, and installing interim roadway lights at the several U.S. 85 and ND 23 intersections in the Watford City area.
“I’m worried,” said Rockvoy. “So are the first responders of all these departments as well as the community. And I know the community is 100 percent behind all of this, and I think that’s important. This safety concern needs to get the attention of state officials and we need to start seeing it taken seriously, with the NDDOT producing results.”