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Boom times take new U.S. Highway 85 bypass

bypass sign.jpg

This sign at the corner of the U.S. Highway 85 bypass signaled Tuesday's ribbon cutting event at Watford City. When it was done, the signal lights were switched on, and the bypass went into operation.

ALEXANDER, N.D. — Lisa Lucas, a California girl in a stocking cap with a little boy in hand and a baby on board, is the reason for the bypass around Alexander.

It is for her and others trying to live out these rambunctious boom times that the state of North Dakota invested $160 million to take state highways around Alexander and Watford City instead of through them.

On Tuesday, after chilly but boisterous ribbon cuttings out on the pavement of both projects, the signal lights at Watford City went into operation. Back in town, it was like someone threw a shutoff switch. Gone was the noise of thousands of trucks, and a pedestrian could walk across the old U.S. Highway 85 intersection without feeling like it was a suicide mission.

It felt the same in Alexander, where the Main Street that used to be the main highway was quiet, just like the good old days. The noisy traffic on U.S. Highway 85 can no longer be heard, much less seen.

Lucas, who had pulled up to the Alexander Post Office to pick up the new baby crib shipped to her, said she likes the little town she and her husband settled into a year ago a lot more now that the traffic is gone.

“It feels like the country is supposed to feel,” Lucas said. “Even the locals are coming outside more.”

Ron Anderson, a McKenzie County commissioner, kept his remarks short and very sweet at the ceremonial event in Watford City, where not one, but two bypasses (the other picking up N.D. Highway 23 to the east) were officially opened Tuesday.

To state officials, contractors and others who helped make the bypass happen, Anderson had only this to say: “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what is happening out here. Thank you so much.“

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said so many tremendous events for his community — a new hospital, high school, events center, a retail and housing explosion — make it hard to pick any one as most important.

‘Normalcy’ returns

All the projects Sanford named will go toward making Watford City a new and more exciting place. But the bypass project gives it back what it lost five years ago when the Bakken oil boom hit like a cyclone.

“We’ll get our town back. We’ll be like Alexander, where they can hear the birds chirping again,” Sanford said.

These towns have been dealing with daily traffic counts of more than 12,000 vehicles a day, many of them loud, loaded semi trucks carrying crude, salt water and other oil products.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the bypasses are almost magical in how they cured what most ailed the towns in the path of all that.

Historic measures

“This (Watford City) is a place where the population can no longer be estimated, and it will change the way life feels overnight,” said Dalrymple, who praised local leaders for being men and women who never expected what was coming, or had the opportunity to plan for it.

“When it did, you stepped up and said, ‘This is our place and time,’ and you did the right thing. It’s hard work that can’t be left to anyone else,” Dalrymple said. “Something historic is happening, and you are at the center of it.“

The bypass projects are the feathers in a cap of a highway construction season like no other.

The $1.6 billion tab for work done in 2013 and 2014 is the largest in state road construction history. More than $400 million of that is for bypasses not only in Watford City and Alexander, but in the oil towns of Dickinson, New Town and Williston.

Department of Transportation director Grant Levi said engineers and contractors worked quickly and efficiently to get the bypass jobs done.

“Four to five years of living with all that traffic ends today,” he said.

The bypasses around the two towns are part of a larger ongoing construction project to four-lane U.S. Highway 85 from Williston to Watford City. As of Tuesday, much of that was finally fully accessible.

“Today, you can go from Watford City to (north of Alexander) on a four-lane highway,” Levi said.

Levi said U.S. Highway 85 four-laning from north of Alexander to Williston will be completed next year and the new Missouri River four-lane bridge the year after that.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or


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