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The Federal Highway Administration has approved plans to construct a bridge across the Little Missouri River, but a timeline for the project has not yet been established and it's unknown if private landowners might fight the project.

The Billings County Commission wants a river crossing to improve emergency response, but opponents worry it would impact the remote and scenic landscape of the Badlands.

A draft environmental impact statement issued last year identified the Short ranch north of Medora as the preferred location to construct a river crossing.

The Federal Highway Administration approved the preferred route last week, paving the way for construction, according to County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud.

A timeline for the project has not yet been established, but the next steps include meeting with private landowners in the coming weeks to try to obtain right-of-way, Arthaud said.

"It’s been a long process and another step in the right direction," he said.

The crossing would connect Belle Lake Road and East River Road and involve acquiring up to 62 acres from private landowners, 15 acres from the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands and 88 acres from the U.S. Forest Service.

It would involve about 2 miles of new roadway and a 600-foot-long, three-span bridge. The project is estimated to cost $11.2 million.

Billings County has spent years researching the addition of a bridge. Current bridges at Medora are about 70 miles apart on Interstate 94 and south of Watford City on Highway 85.

Arthaud said the county has not yet identified a funding source for the project.

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It has been met with strong opposition from landowners, including the Short family, whose ranch would be bisected by the crossing.

Dave Short told the Tribune last year that Billings County would have to use eminent domain to acquire the family's land.

The Short family has leased the land since 1987, but members return several times a year to hunt or hold family gatherings. Don Johnson, one of the owners of the ranch, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The Federal Highway Administration's approval, called a record of decision, has not yet been published in the Federal Register, but it's expected to be next week, according to Jamie Olson, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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