FAIRFIELD, N.D. — Joe Kessel is blunt when he talks about a proposed project that would make U.S. Highway 85 four lanes from Interstate 94 to Watford City, N.D.
“Why haven’t they got it done yet?” he asks with a hearty laugh.
The Billings County Commissioner lives a half-mile off the well-traveled Bakken Oil Patch thoroughfare only about four miles south of the McKenzie County line and said he deals with oilfield traffic every day. He even believes the drop in oil prices over the past year hasn’t created that much of a slowdown along the highway.
The public will get a glimpse of the 62-mile project proposed by the North Dakota Department of Transportation for the first time this week when public scoping meetings are held at 5 p.m. Monday at Belfield City Hall and at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Watford City City Hall.
Jamie Olson, the NDDOT’s public information specialist, said there’s no telling how long the four-laning process would take, but said it could last upward of a decade. There’s also no dollar amount attached to the project yet, as it must go through multiple approval steps first.
“It’ll take a long time once they complete that environmental (assessment) portion of it,” she said. “That’ll help to answer some of those questions: How long are we looking at? What are the options?”
Jesse Romanyshyn, the owner and manager of Four Corners Cafe in Fairfield, said he’s undecided about the proposal and plans to attend one of this week’s meetings to ask questions and learn more about the project.
His cafe sits just off Highway 85 and he also lives near the road.
While Romanyshyn said areas of Highway 85 could use more passing lanes, he’s concerned about how a four-lane road — which would likely include a fifth turning lane — would go through the tiny town where his is one of the few businesses.
“It could be a good thing,” Romanyshyn said. “But without losing some land, I guess I’m neither for nor against it until I find out a little bit about how much is going to be done.”
He said four-laning Highway 85 would put the elementary school that’s to the north of his cafe much closer to the road than it already is and would impact the Club 85 bar that’s on the other side of the highway.
Kessel said most people he has spoken to in northern Billings County would be in favor of the four-lane project, but expressed concern for how the highway would run through Fairfield.
“That’s the only place where you would” have issues, Kessel said.
Fixing the Long X Bridge
Though making the entire 62-mile stretch four lanes will be the biggest source of debate at the public meetings, many agree that one area along the highway must be fixed sooner rather than later.
Olson said a “major component” of the proposed project is the rehabilitation or replacement of the Long X Bridge over the Little Missouri River about 15 miles south of Watford City in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The 56-year-old bridge, with a 16-foot clearance, has been shut down multiple times over the past few years because of accidents and was struck 20 times between 2011 and 2014, according to NDDOT statistics.
State Rep. Denton Zubke, a Watford City Republican and the CEO of Dakota West Credit Union, said fixing the Long X Bridge should be the first priority of the project.
“The bridge has been a source of consternation for the past 30 years. More so now,” he said.
Kessel agrees and said replacing the bridge is the most important part of the project.
“That’s been a thorn in the side since day one,” he said.
For several years, Cal Klewin has been a member of the Port-to-Plains Alliance, a group lobbying to see Highway 85 turned into a four-lane freeway from the Canadian to Mexican borders.
Klewin, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association, which lobbies for making the road four lanes from Williston, N.D., to Belle Fourche, S.D., said he’s pleased to see the project beginning to move forward.
He said replacing the Long X Bridge has long been a thorny issue held back by environmental concerns related to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri River.
“We have a tourism industry that consistently grows in North Dakota on the western side, and that area there is part of our tourism attractions. And also we have a world-class industry that U.S. Highway 85 serves,” he said, referring to the state’s oil and gas industry. “We have to combine those things and we have to realize that we have to make human life and transportation safety in the forefront.”
Olson said the NDDOT hasn’t heard concerns about the highway’s route through the North Unit yet, but said “there will be some.”
“There’s a lot of environmental concerns and some sensitive areas there,” she said.
Funding four lanes
Olson said funding for such a massive project would likely need to come from both state and federal sources.
Klewin said the national highway funding bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives this week, could play a factor in getting the project going.
Zubke said he believes the state Legislature would support funding the project during the 2017 legislative session because it recognizes the role Highway 85 plays in Oil Patch transportation.
“That’ll all be a part of figuring out what we can accomplish here,” Olson said.
Zubke said he believes now is the ideal time to begin discussing the project at length.
Though oil activity continues in southern McKenzie and northern Billings counties, it has slowed down enough to allow for prolonged environmental assessment and construction, he said.
“This is still an economic engine that is turning along. There’s going to be a lot of pipes coming into this country and a lot of people,” Zubke said. “To me, this looks like the perfect time to do it. Why wait until we’re overheated, and we’ve got that hustle and bustle back? Why not do it now? It’s a long-term infrastructure project that needs to happen.”
Romanyshyn said he spent time working in the Bakken oilfields before opening the cafe, and said it’s debatable whether the project needs to happen if the western North Dakota oil slowdown lingers.
“Before I moved out here, a four-lane (road) would have been beneficial just from that level of oil activity and traffic,” he said. “Traffic right now, it isn’t needed. It depends on oil prices.”