Wardner: Time for state to put oil money away for TR Expressway
WATFORD CITY — One of the leading political figures in the North Dakota Senate said Tuesday that it’s time for the state to put tax money generated from oil activity in the Bakken into a fund for enhancements along U.S. Highway 85.
Stating he believes it’s “time to strike,” Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told about 60 onlookers at the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway annual meeting in Watford City that communities in oil-impacted western North Dakota should not rely only on federal help with projects to help make Highway 85 — the main north-south corridor in and out of the Bakken — safer for motorists.
“I really feel that four-laning (Highway 85) is absolutely necessary,” Wardner said. “I live in Dickinson and the four-laning that was done just 5 miles to the north out of town on Highway 21 made an incredible difference. For years, we have promoted this as a commerce corridor, which it is. But it did not resonate with some legislators and people who live in the eastern part of the state. We have come to a point now where it’s about a commerce corridor. It’s about a corridor for local traffic that is safe to drive.”
Though Wardner expressed that he believes there should be urgency to act to expand lanes along the highway, the Senate majority leader fell short of criticizing North Dakota Department of Transportation State Director Grant Levi and work his department has done so far in attempting to remedy safety and congestion concerns along Highway 85, especially north of Interstate 94 at Belfield.
“Things are just continuing to pile on with regard to traffic on 85,” said McKenzie County Commissioner Roger Chinn of Grassy Butte. “We build 300 housing units every year in our county. We talk about new projects and new gas plants, but how is all that going to get here? It’s going to come up Highway 85. It’s the only way things can get in here. It’s good that we’re starting to take a look at not just the oil industry, but the other effects that are caused by increased traffic.”
Chinn said he lauded the Department of Transportation for recently adding a number of turning lanes in and around Grassy Butte, but said more needs to be done. Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association members are advocating for an expanded four-lane expressway from the Black Hills area of South Dakota through North Dakota and to the Canadian border.
State legislators earlier this year designated $2.3 billion for road improvements in North Dakota in the the current biennium. Of that total, more than $300 has been earmarked for four-laning Highway 85 from Williston to Watford City, a project Levi said is the priority now for the region.
“We know we have work to do in different areas,” Levi said. “This is probably a good time to say this: We’re understaffed in some areas. In our Williston district, we’re down 12 people for our equipment people and transportation techs. Those are the people that take care of the roads when there’s snow and ice. We’re working to come up with ways to solve that problem. Right now, we’re not even getting people to apply.”
Levi said he wasn’t aware that some motorists spent, in some cases, as many as six hours on navigating Highway 85 between Watford City and Williston after a snowfall on Nov. 20. One Watford City businessman said an employee of his spent five hours in his vehicle while commuting from Belfield to Watford City.
Chinn mentioned that semi trucks on Highway 85 had been seen stopping in the middle of the road to apply chains to their tires, causing significant delays.
While safety concerns for local motorists along Highway 85 seem to be growing, a battle could also be brewing between environmental advocates and supporters of four-laning the highway from Belfield to Watford City — a project that would logically be the next in line along the expressway corridor.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park spokesperson Eileen Andes said Tuesday that park officials continue to be concerned about possible encroachment onto park land as Highway 85 cuts through the park’s North Unit.
“We have the same concerns about safety that many others do,” Andes said. “We just want to see what all the options are. We will continue to abide by the values of the park. Our job is to protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”
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 Badlands Conservation Alliance’s Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal, which aims to permanently protect a portion of the Little Missouri National Grassland from industrial development.
NDDOT spokesperson Jamie Olson said earlier this month that widening Highway 85 from Watford City to Belfield 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.
A mix of local and state government offices and elected officials, business and commerce leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Canada, and members of the Expressway Association’s board of directors attended Tuesday’s meeting and came to a consensus that something needs to be done along Highway 85 from Watford City south.
Wardner, the final speaker of the afternoon, summed up what many who travel the corridor regularly have known for some time.
“This is a quality-of-life issue,” Wardner said. “We need to make sure that the people in the 19 counties that produce oil and gas are on board with this as we head into the next legislative session. I believe that North Dakota will have to carve out some funds from its oil money to make sure the TR Expressway gets done.”