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Highway 85 west of Dickinson sees 124 percent increase

Press Photo by Betsy Simon Traffic flows easily along Highway 85 near Interstate 94 at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Traffic on Highway 85 increased 124 percent last year, and now the North Dakota Department of Transportation wants to get a better understanding of traffic patterns in the Oil Patch.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation wants to get a better understanding of traffic patterns in the Oil Patch, officials said Friday, especially after finding out traffic on Highway 85 increased 124 percent last year.

"The traffic volumes in western North Dakota have historically been much less than eastern North Dakota," said Jack Olson, assistant director of the DOT's planning/asset management division. "Over the last few years, they have been increasing."

An oil boom in western North Dakota has put more traffic on the roads, Olson said. Of the 100 loads necessary to move a drilling rig, 40 to 50 are either overweight or oversized, requiring permits.

The roads also serve the agriculture, coal and manufacturing industries, which has increased across, the assistant director said.

Statewide, traffic grew more than 26 percent, according to the report.

Olson said the highest concentration of traffic on Highway 85 is by Watford City. Traffic from Interstate 94 and Highway 200 filters onto the highway, sending it to the city.

The DOT has tracked traffic counts every three years, focusing on a different third of the state each year. It took counts in 2010.

However, fast-paced changes pushed it to take counts again last year, and it plans to continue tracking traffic in the west every year, Olson said. He cited counts for Highway 200 north of Belfield.

The average for that segment for 2009-2011 per day was 1,764, he said, adding in 2011, that same segment went to 3,172 vehicles.

The change is justified, said Cal Klewin, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association.

"I think if they look to the future and have a vision for transportation, it is going to be a strong asset for North Dakota," he said.

The Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute in Fargo has been commissioned by the state Legislature to conduct a study in western North Dakota, which should be ready June 15, according to the institute.

Klewin has always questioned how accurate the counts are, adding they are often an underestimation.

"The growth has been so significant, especially with freight," he said.

Shawn Berger, who has lived about two miles northeast of Belfield for eight year, said he would have never imagined that traffic would be as heavy as it is on Highway 85, adding it should be a four-lane road.

"When you got to wait 10 to 15 minutes to get on the highway, you got a wait a long time," he said. "I don't know if it is 10 or 15 minutes, but it feels like that."

Older roads cannot handle heavy vehicles because they were made for agricultural uses, Olson said. He believes traffic patterns will continue to change, and it is important to track numbers to plan infrastructure to handle that traffic.

Klewin thinks Highway 85 will continue to see significant traffic numbers.

"The industry is trying its best to reduce some of the trucks," he said. "But we have to keep in mind that we have to move a significant amount of equipment and freight, and that still has to come by truck, and they still have to use our roads."