Group floats idea of a ferry across Lake Sakakawea

WILLISTON, N.D. – A ferry to float vehicles across Lake Sakakawea could relieve traffic on overburdened Oil Patch highways, says a group working to plan western North Dakota’s future.

Members of the Vision West ND Consortium voted this week to fund a study to explore the feasibility of a ferry that could transport cars and small trucks across the lake.

A proposed marine highway system would connect Twin Buttes to Elbow Woods Bay, which is south of Parshall, giving motorists an alternative to driving around the lake.

“It was a little dream that now turns into an adventure we’re going to study,” said Daryl Dukart, chairman of the consortium, which has been holding strategic planning sessions for the 19 oil and gas producing counties.

The ferry would be designed for cars and lightweight trucks, serving the public and potentially some oilfield crews, Dukart said. It is not envisioned to be for tractor-trailers or heavy trucks, Dukart said.

Vision West committed $5,000 to do a preliminary study looking at who would use a ferry and how much it would cost to operate. Lunenberg Shipyard of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Ulteig Engineering in North Dakota each agreed to put $2,500 toward the study, members said.

The ferry system should reduce traffic on Oil Patch highways, especially N.D. Highway 22, through Dunn and McKenzie counties, and potentially also U.S. Highway 85, said project leader Mark Resner of Mott.

“To me, it’s irresponsible that we have that horrible traffic problem,” Resner said. “If we can do something that will move some of that traffic off of those two roads, it’ll make everybody’s lives so much easier and save some. It would unquestionably save lives.”

The proposed ferry route would follow the path of a bridge that crossed the Missouri River before that area was flooded by Garrison Dam.

Resner estimates the earliest a ferry could be running is fall 2015 or summer 2016.

The ferry, which could float pickups pulling boat trailers or campers across the lake, would promote tourism and fishing, members said. Resner, who has researched ferries in other areas, estimates it would take about a half hour to cross the lake.

“I think you’d see a lot of recreational traffic in the summertime on the ferry,” Resner said.

The transportation option also would help unite areas the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Resner said.

The study will be the first step to getting a plan together to bring to the Legislature next session, Resner said.

Moving forward with a ferry would require several partners, including the state, the Three Affiliated Tribes, the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Resner said.

Dave Leftwich, the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s liaison for the western part of the state, said the concept is worth looking at, but pointed out the lake is frozen part of the year.

“We’ll see what the study shows,” Leftwich said.

Building a bridge across that portion of the lake would be extremely pricey, Leftwich said.

Shirley Meyer, a former state legislator from Dickinson, said she recalls her father advocated for a bridge crossing Lake Sakakawea in the early 1980s when he served in the state Legislature.

“It would pull a lot of traffic off 22,” Meyer said. “Oddly enough, the issue hasn’t changed much.”

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