Klewin and Veeder: TR Expressway, Highway 85 a growing corridor
The Theodore Roosevelt Expressway, U.S. Highway 85, is the major corridor serving the Bakken region and connects North Dakota with major markets for its goods, resources and labor force.
The Expressway begins in Rapid City, S.D., and flows through the South Dakota cities of Spearfish and Belle Fourche; through North Dakota at Bowman, Belfield, Watford City and Williston; into Montana, including Culbertson and Plentywood; and finally through the Port of Raymond into Canada.
As part of the Ports-to-Plains Corridor, it also connects to markets south to Texas and Mexico. Almost $3.3 billion of North Dakota goods are projected to be exported domestically by truck to the 10-state Ports-to-Plains region by 2015; an increase of 217 percent since 2002.
Long before the oil and gas play in western North Dakota, Highway 85 was looked upon as a link to economic development opportunities for rural western North Dakota. North-south travelers use Highway 85 to reach destinations such as Theodore Roosevelt Park in North Dakota, the Black Hills in South Dakota or on their way to destinations further south to the Colorado mountains or to Northern destinations in Canada.
Many of the communities relied on Highway 85 to bring customers to their door. Today, it is not easy to listen to travelers say, "I do not use that road anymore if I can help it." What effect will that have on these local small business, on the safety of travelers, on the development of the Bakken resources and on North Dakota's economy?
The North Dakota Legislature recognized the answer to these questions was reliant upon the expansion of the Expressway in North Dakota and included significantly increased transportation funding in its biennial budget for 2013-14. The additional funding comes from oil and gas revenue collected from the oil and gas companies developing North Dakota's energy resources. The expansion to a four-lane Highway 85 needs to move forward as quickly as possible by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
The environmental process is underway on the expansion project between Williston and Watford City. Hopefully that project will begin construction next year.
We urge the Department of Transportation to initiate the environmental process on Highway 85 south of Watford City. But there is a problem. Highway 85 skirts the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. An expanded Highway 85 would affect less than 2 miles skirting the northern unit.
The environmental process should address alternatives and assist the Department of Transportation in finding the preferred alternative for addressing the potential impacts. The current status of Highway 85 from Watford City to Belfield is creating a dangerous situation for visitors to western North Dakota, especially those visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park and other public available federal lands.
The National Park Service, however, along with one additional conservation group, has chosen to preempt the environmental process by sending a letter to the state Department of Transportation opposing the expansion. As a result, it appears that moving into the environmental process has been halted by the Department of Transportation.
The Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association, and the communities and small businesses along Highway 85, are urging the Department of Transportation to fast track the environmental process. The National Park Service will have a rightful seat at the table, along with other conservation groups.
In the environmental process, all parties will have a seat at the table to find the best alternative to protect both public safety and the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association does not want to see the Northern Unit become a congested choke point that has the real impact of creating both significant safety and environmental impacts.
In other parts of the country, Park Service and highway engineers have resolved similar problems and the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association believes the same to be possible here.
Officials, engineers and interested members of the public need to push to resolve a multitude of small and large conflicts before work can begin expanding Highway 85. Fatalities, casualties, economy, labor force, markets for North Dakota goods and small businesses are all affected by this process.
Klewin is from Bowman and is the executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association. Veeder is from Watford City and is the McKenzie County economic development director.
The Theodore Roosevelt Expressway is an association of local government and business interests in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. To contact them, visit www.trexpressway.com.