Supporters, opponents come out to talk Highway 85 expansion from Watford City to Belfield
A battle over adding lanes to U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City could be gaining traction and the North Dakota Department of Transportation could be caught in the middle. With the DOT’s attention focused squarely on its current project to expand Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston into a four-lane highway, a number of southwest North Dakota cities and counties have recently expressed support of a potential plan to do the same from south of Watford City to Interstate 94.
On Wednesday during its regular monthly meeting, the Medora City Council voted 4-0 in favor of supporting a resolution offered by the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association, encouraging the DOT to “proceed with planning a four-lane from Watford City to I-94 at Belfield.”
DOT spokesperson Jamie Olson said Thursday that a Watford City-to-Belfield widening of Highway 85 is not a part of the department’s 2012-15 State Transportation Improvement Program plan, though the DOT asked for public comment on the possible addition in 2012.
In June of 2012, Badlands Conservation Alliance executive director Jan Swenson and Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor sent letters to the DOT expressing concern about possible harmful effects from any potential project to TRNP’s North Unit, which sits along the Little Missouri River several miles south of Watford City.
Both Swenson and TRNP spokesperson Eileen Andes said Thursday that they aren’t against improving safety along Highway 85, but rather wish to seek what alternative options might be out there.
“We are concerned about safety, especially since our visitors travel Highway 85 from both directions and our employees also have to travel on the highway,” Andes said. “The safety of that highway is of huge importance to us. We are concerned about the widening of Highway 85 through the park because of its potential negative effects on park resources.”
In addition to Medora, Belfield’s City Council and Bowman County commissioners recently voted to show support for TREA Resolution No. 03-2013 and the measure is on the agenda for Friday’s Adams County Commission meeting.
“It’s apparent to me that making Highway 85 four lanes is pretty much a necessary thing,” said Medora city Councilman Denis Joyce at Wednesday’s meeting. “Traffic on that road is just atrocious. I think it’s a no-brainer to support this resolution.”
TREA executive director Cal Klewin, a Bowman resident, said his group has received “extensive support” along the entire corridor, which stretches from Canada into South Dakota.
“We’ve had excellent response to the resolution,” Klewin said. “We’re very pleased with what’s going on from Watford City to Williston with the four-lane project. We want to compliment the DOT for taking that on and moving that project forward. What our resolution now is aimed at doing is just to give the (DOT) support to go ahead with planning the expressway south from Watford City to I-94 for the next phase.”
In a letter dated June 29, 2012, sent from Swenson to the DOT, the BCA director stated that her group realized that “grave” safety issues were present on the highway, but encouraged the DOT to take a “comprehensive plan” into account that would stop further encroachment onto the park’s parameter from building projects and oil impacts.
“I take some offense to how (TREA) is positioning the park and BCA and saying we are simply opposed to dealing with safety issues on Highway 85,” Swenson said. “The highway currently passes through the North Unit of the park — there are park lands on both sides of the highway, so a four-laning of the road would have a lot of impact. Something does need to be done with 85, but we would argue that there are other solutions. What we are in favor of is having a conversation along those lines.”
To essentially make a two-lane highway into a four-lane highway through a national park, Swenson said, would be “irresponsible” and pointed to the fact that, with a number of pipeline projects under construction or being planned in the Bakken, traffic on Highway 85 could lessen, which could potentially mean less of a need to widen the road.
Areas on the east and west sides of Highway 85 near the Little Missouri River crossing south of Watford City have been designated as lands included in the BCA’s Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal, which aims to permanently protect a portion of the Little Missouri National Grassland from industrial development.
“This is the same as oil development,” Andes said. “We’re not against oil development, we just want it to be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the park. Our job is to preserve the values and resources of the park, but we also have to be very considerate of public safety.”
Olson stated that, according to 2012 DOT numbers, the most recent available, there were two motorist fatalities along Highway 85 from Belfield to Watford City.