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Badlands a sensitive subject as plans to widen U.S. 85 emerge

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - The public will be asked for input next week on alternatives for the proposed four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City, but none of the options include maintaining a two-lane highway through Theodore Roosevelt Nat...

U.S. Hwy. 85 cuts through the North Dakota Badlands on July 14, 2016, south of Watford City, N.D.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
U.S. Hwy. 85 cuts through the North Dakota Badlands on July 14, 2016, south of Watford City, N.D. (Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service)

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – The public will be asked for input next week on alternatives for the proposed four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City, but none of the options include maintaining a two-lane highway through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Some conservation advocates have argued against expanding Highway 85 for a 7-mile stretch in the sensitive Badlands area that crosses the North Unit of the park and the Little Missouri Scenic River.

“Our position is it is simply inappropriate for some activity or infrastructure to be built in close proximity, or in this case, in a national park,” said Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. “We believe there’s a large number of North Dakotans that if they were totally informed, would agree with us.”

Matt Linneman, project manager with the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said the agency considered those views, but concluded that a four-lane roadway is needed along the entire 62-mile route to provide connectivity from Interstate 94 with the rest of Highway 85 and to handle oil and ag traffic, improve safety and accommodate more traffic.

“Our need is to provide a four-lane facility,” Linneman said.

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The Department of Transportation, which is also working with the Federal Highway Administration, is developing design options, such as more narrow medians, to minimize impacts to sensitive areas, Linneman said.

“We’re willing to make this fit as best we can in the context of where it fits in the Badlands and understand that’s an important resource,” he said.

Design options will be displayed in Belfield on Monday and Watford City on Tuesday during public workshops.

Linneman said the concepts, which include three options for replacing or rehabilitating the historic Long X Bridge and some alternatives for the highway as it goes through Fairfield, are all drafts and open for public input.

Valerie Naylor, former superintendent for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, questioned whether true alternatives are on the table if there’s no option for some two-lane stretches.

Naylor, who now works as a consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association, said she thinks a four-lane highway will increase noise and traffic levels and create safety hazards for visitors turning into the park.

“There needs to be some real alternatives to dealing with the sensitive areas along that corridor,” Naylor said.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department, one of several cooperating agencies on the project, is pushing for five wildlife crossings, including three highway overpasses, for bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and other big game animals.

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“One of our biggest concerns going through there is the migration routes, the travel corridors for these areas,” said resource biologist Bruce Kreft. “We’ve seen a lot of them getting killed on the roads, which is a concern of ours and a concern for highway safety.”

Fencing would be needed to help funnel animals into the wildlife crossings, Kreft said.

Without the crossings, a wider highway would be too large of a barrier and big game populations would likely diminish, Kreft said.

“There just isn’t as much habitat for them to maintain their population,” he said.

A funding source has not yet been identified for the project, except for improving Long X Bridge, which is a priority for the department, Linneman said. During the oil boom, several oversized trucks damaged the bridge, sometimes closing it for hours.

The options proposed for the Long X Bridge are:

- Increase the overhead clearance of the bridge for traffic going one direction and build a second bridge next to it for the other direction of traffic.

- Build a new four-lane bridge beside the existing bridge and keep the Long X Bridge for a trail crossing or other use.

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- Remove Long X and build a new bridge.

The options will be posted next week to the project website, www.nddotwilliston.com/85-project-watford-city-i94 , which has a link for public comments.

The Badlands Conservation Alliance, with 350 members, has advocated for having public meetings outside of Belfield and Watford City so more people can participate.

“We feel there should be at least a couple more hearings in the central and eastern part of the state,” Swenson said.

If you go Two public alternative workshops for the proposed HIghway 85 expansion between Watford City and Interstate 94 will be held next week.

A meeting will be held at Belfield City Hall from 5-7 p.m. Mountain on Monday.

A meeting is scheduled for Watford City Hall from 5-7 p.m. Central on Tuesday.

Both meetings will have an open house format with a formal presentation at 5:30 p.m. local time.

The public can also submit comments to Matt Linneman, program manager, at mlinneman@nd.gov with “Public Alternatives Workshop” in the subject. Or write to him at NDDOT, 608 East Boulevard Ave. Bismarck, ND, 58505-0700.

Related Topics: WILDLIFE
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