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Western ND highway expansion proposal draws national park concerns

BELFIELD, N.D. — A proposal to expand U.S. Highway 85 in western North Dakota continues to get mixed reviews, with some saying it's needed to improve safety and others worried about impacts to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is holding three public hearings this week on a plan to expand the highway from two to four lanes between Watford City and Interstate 94.

It's still not known how the estimated $479 million project would be paid for or when construction would start.

Project manager Matt Linneman said the replacement of the Long X Bridge south of Watford City is the only portion of the project with state funding, with work tentatively planned to begin in 2019.

The next priorities for the state would be to expand Highway 85 between North Dakota Highway 200 and Watford City, followed by the segment between Interstate 94 and Highway 200. Funding has not been identified for those segments of the 62-mile project and they are not scheduled for construction in the state's four-year transportation improvement plan, Linneman said.

"It's hard to have a schedule if you don't have any money," Linneman told attendees during a public hearing in Belfield on Tuesday.

Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, raised concerns during the hearing about impacts from highway noise on the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Highway 85 goes by the North Unit entrance and travels through the Badlands for 7 miles.

Swenson questioned whether the department's sound studies adequately considered the impact of low-frequency noise from trucks.

"Sound is a big deal to the folks that I represent," Swenson said. "Those kind of subtle impacts have a large, magnified impact on visitor experience."

The draft environmental impact statement included two studies of the potential noise impacts to the park, according to Linneman, who said the proposal aims to minimize impacts to the North Unit and the Badlands, with a more narrow highway with varying median widths.

"We worked to minimize the footprint the best that we can and still provide a safe roadway," he said.

The National Park Service was among the federal agencies to work with the Department of Transportation on the proposal. The expanded highway would stay within the existing right-of-way the Park Service has for the highway.

"We have minimized the impacts of the proposed action to the greatest extent possible," said Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Wendy Ross.

The proposal includes two wildlife underpasses in the Badlands and the Long X Bridge corridor also will serve as a wildlife crossing, Linneman said.

Mike McEnroe, of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, said he'd like to see additional wildlife crossings.

The proposed highway expansion aims to make the roadway safer to accommodate an increase in oil traffic, as well as agriculture traffic and an increased population, Linneman said.

During a previous round of public hearings, people complained about a lack of passing opportunities on Highway 85 and raised concerns about reliability, he said.

Oversized trucks and equipment have at times struck the overhead framing of the Long X Bridge, causing it to close for hours or longer.

Gerry Grosulak, who lives north of Belfield about a half mile from Highway 85, said he supports the four-lane highway, especially the replacement of the Long X Bridge.

"I think it's needed," Grosulak said after the public hearing. "I think it'll make things safer."

The Bakken Backers, affiliated with the North Dakota Petroleum Council, encouraged members on Wednesday to support the Highway 85 expansion, calling it "critical for safe and efficient movement of freight and people in the Bakken."

The Long X Bridge proposal calls for the historic bridge to be removed and replaced with a four-lane bridge constructed to the east.

The department is seeking proposals to adopt the bridge, which is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Linneman said the agency has heard from groups interested in preserving a portion of the bridge but are still researching the costs involved.

Public comments are being accepted through June 25 at DOTUS85@nd.gov. More information about the project is available at www.dot.nd.gov/projects/williston/US85I94/.

State officials anticipate issuing a final decision and environmental impact statement this fall. The Federal Highway Administration will ultimately decide whether the project is built, Linneman said.

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