WATFORD CITY – A four-lane highway heading south of Watford City is critical for improving safety and promoting economic development for the region, several said during a public meeting Tuesday.
But others urged planners of a four-lane U.S. Highway 85 to do more to minimize impacts to the Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The North Dakota Department of Transportation held a meeting in Watford City Tuesday to get feedback on proposed options for expanding Highway 85 between Watford City and Belfield.
Several at the meeting recalled recent vehicle fatalities and countless close calls on that stretch of Highway 85, which accommodates agriculture and oil traffic with few passing lanes.
“I always told people, ‘Whatever you do, don’t pass,’” said Curt Glasoe of Dickinson, who drove that area frequently until he retired from the U.S. Forest Service.
Others emphasized the economic benefits of having a four-lane highway, including the impact to agriculture.
“Slow-moving ag equipment is very dangerous and that industry needs to be protected here as well,” said Gene Veeder, a rancher and McKenzie County economic development director.
The 62-mile expansion would include special design considerations in a 7-mile stretch through the Badlands, including a median as narrow as four feet wide instead of the standard 20-foot width. Wildlife crossings are also proposed for that area, as well as further south, to minimize impacts to bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and other animals.
“We need to fit within the context of what’s out there,” said Troy Ripplinger, project engineer with KLJ.
In addition to crossing the boundary of the North Unit, the expansion would affect roughly 9½ miles of public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, said Shannon Boehm, district ranger for the Medora District. The expansion comes close to the Maah Daah Hey Trail at some points, Boehm said.
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Laura Anhalt of Bismarck encouraged transportation officials to consider the noise impacts of a four-lane highway through the North Unit and suggested that traffic be slowed down before entering the park.
“Please respect the park experience so people will just hear the buffalo, the birds and the wind in the cottonwood trees,” Anhalt said.
Matt Linneman, project manager with the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said different pavement types or surface treatments that can mitigate tire noise are being considered. In addition, a noise study will be part of an environmental impact assessment, Linneman said.
Tracy Potter of Bismarck questioned whether it will be possible to expand the highway south of the Long X Bridge and suggested keeping some two-lane stretches.
“I think it’s an engineering miracle if you’re going to put a four-lane highway there,” Potter said. “And if you’re going to do it, it’s going to be with extreme environmental damage to that area.”
But others at the meeting said switching between four-lane and two-lane sections could create more chances for traffic accidents.
“I feel it’s important to keep the four-lane in there so you don’t have the lane shifts,” said Vawnita Best, a McKenzie County commissioner. “That’s one of the more important safety pieces.”
One aspect of the project that seemed to have universal support is a proposed multi-use trail that would connect the North Unit to Watford City for bicyclists, pedestrians and horseback riders.
The project, estimated to cost $830 million to $1 billion, does not have a funding source identified, other than the rehabilitation or replacement of Long X Bridge.
Public comments on the options can be sent to Linneman through Aug. 26 at email@example.com or through the project website, www.nddotwilliston.com/85-project-watford-city-i94.