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Highway 85 concerns move south

A semi truck travels south on U.S. Highway 85 between Belfield and Amidon on Wednesday.

Traffic concerns in the Oil Patch are well known to the people living and working in western North Dakota.

Worries about how the Bakken energy boom is now affecting or could, in the future, affect roadways have now spread across state lines.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol recently implemented a new squad of several officers based in Belle Fourche, S.D., in response to an increase in traffic coming and going from the Bakken.

"Several years ago, we began to see an increase in traffic, primarily on (U.S.) Highway 85, both northbound and southbound," said SDHP Capt. Kevin Karley. "As the traffic has increased, so have our service calls and driving complaints called in. This is a unique deal -- we're starting new."

The four-person troop consisting of a sergeant and three troopers -- which officially went into effect April 1 -- has been named the Northern Plains Squad with the added trooper positions being funded with grant money.

Karley said that in the past several years, northwest South Dakota has seen an increase in traffic of 70 percent overall. In certain areas of the region over the past 10 years, there has been an increase of up to 230 percent in the number of commercial vehicles alone with most of the added activity coming on Highway 85.

In the Oil Patch, however, the increased traffic in South Dakota might be seen as child's play.

Increased semi truck oil and water tanker traffic, along with all the other different types of vehicles needed during an energy boom, have cause increasing safety, congestion and road decay issues in recent years in western North Dakota.

In a recent Forum News Service story, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford called the number of traffic fatalities so far this year in McKenzie County, where his city is located, "appalling."

Not yet four months into 2013, North Dakota has already had 32 traffic-related deaths.

Traffic gets busier the farther north one travels on Highway 85 in North Dakota, a situation only exacerbated during adverse weather conditions in the colder months and during summer road construction projects.

"That entire western portion of North Dakota is active," said North Dakota Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. James Prochniak. "But our priority right now is the Oil Patch. We're stomping out the biggest fire by looking at the issues in areas like Williams County and McKenzie County and those challenges that we hear about every day."

Calling the issues facing the highway patrol "critical," Prochniak said his agency is trying to be proactive with traffic safety issues and increased activity across the board, but added that "it's difficult when you're running from call to call and, quite frankly, officers are suffering from burnout."

The highway patrol has requested funding for 15 additional officers during the current North Dakota legislative session, nine of which would be placed in the Oil Patch, said Prochniak.

He added that three officers currently in training are scheduled to be added to the force in McKenzie County by June. Prochniak said the added manpower will be a welcome addition.

"With 148 officers total, we're the smallest highway patrol in the nation," Prochniak said. "Since I've been in this position beginning in 2009, we've reversed our trend and now have more officers in the western half of the state than on the eastern side. Is that justified? Absolutely."

Prochniak said making western North Dakota roads safer and more easily negotiable takes a joint effort from the state's Legislature and agencies to the oil and motor-carrier industries.

"We've really tried to ramp up all those relationships," Prochniak said. "I firmly believe that, as silly as this sounds, if we weren't taking the measures we're currently taking out there, things would be even worse."

Whispers have been circulating for years among southwest North Dakota community leaders and residents that oil activity could steadily move south. If that eventually happens, Highway 85 will only become busier.

From Belfield to the South Dakota border and beyond, the highway is still a shell of what roadways are like in the heart of the Oil Patch.

A drive from Belfield to Amidon on Highway 85 still can resemble a scenic stroll down a country highway at times, though construction is set to begin on a 12-mile stretch of the road from Belfield south next week.

In a release issued Friday, North Dakota Department of Transportation spokesperson Jamie Olson stated delays should be minimal, though speeds will be reduced to 35 mph in work zones.

"We don't see things changing in the near future," Karley said. "We hope adding these troopers can also take some of the pressure off of those local law enforcement officials who have seen an increase in workload."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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