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.”

Caution urged during North Dakota’s largest road construction season ever

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — I seriously considered phoning this assignment in.

I feared that driving from Williston to Watford City in heavy rain Thursday on a deadly stretch of Oil Patch highway to a press conference on road safety might make me another statistic.

But with 48 traffic fatalities so far this year — 12 of those in McKenzie County — there is no topic that deserves more news coverage in western North Dakota than highway safety.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation unveiled Thursday its $878 million construction program for 2013, the largest in the state’s history.

For those of us who drive these Oil Patch roads daily, the projects are both welcome and a little scary.

Expanding U.S. Highway 85 to a four-lane highway between Williston and Watford City will make a huge difference in daily lives of residents, some who now avoid that 45-mile stretch of road completely.

But it’s hard to imagine how construction crews will widen the road as 12,000 vehicles, mostly heavy trucks and diesel pickups, travel by daily.

“It’s going to be even more dangerous,” said Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford.

That’s why Grant Levi, the newly appointed director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, and other officials came to Watford City to emphasize safety.

Officials urged motorists to buckle up, reduce speeds, allow extra time and minimize distractions.

“People need to slow down and people need to be patient,” Levi said.

Last year, the state had 257 crashes in work zones resulting in two fatalities.

Sgt. Tom Iverson with the North Dakota Highway Patrol said during 700 hours of patrolling work zones in 2012, the most common violations were for speeding and following too closely.

The Highway Patrol will soon have three new troopers assigned to McKenzie County, which Sanford said will significantly improve driver behavior and safety.

New Town Mayor Dan Uran, who attended the news conference, said his area has lost four residents in the past two weeks to traffic fatalities.

Uran said he thinks many crashes are caused by drivers who should use more caution.

“I don’t think they’re respecting the fact that there’s all this traffic out there,” Uran said.

The Bismarck officials flew to Watford City on Thursday because they also held an event in Fargo. But Levi and others also spent time driving the northwestern North Dakota roads recently, which sent a strong signal to local officials.

“It’s demonstrating their focus on this area,” Sanford said.

Motorists can stay updated on construction projects several ways:

- Access the travel information map at www.dot.nd.gov

- Call 511

- Subscribe to work zone email notifications at www.dot.nd.gov/govdelivery/landing.htm

- Download the ND Roads smartphone app

Major 2013 N.D. road construction projects include:

- I-29 work near Grafton, Grand Forks, Fargo and Hankinson

- U.S. 2 west of Williston

- N.D. 23 Parshall to US 83

- U.S. 2 work to Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks

- N.D. 22 north to Killdeer

- N.D. 8 south to Bowbells

- U.S. 85 near Belfield

- U.S. 85 four lane project between Watford City and Williston

- U.S. 52 work near Harvey and Pingree

Bill targets speeders with out-of-state license plates

BISMARCK – Tioga Rep. Bob Skarphol is tired of seeing the same out-of-state license plates on vehicles driven by new western North Dakota workers.

The Republican who lives in the heart of North Dakota’s oil boom has introduced a bill that would require people with out-of-state license plates to pay speeding fines of their home state.

“I think it’s gotten to the point where something needs to change,” Skarphol said of the out-of-state license plates, which often seem to outnumber North Dakota plates in the Oil Patch.

Under House Bill 1189, law enforcement would have the discretion to determine if the driver caught speeding is living and working in North Dakota and issue a higher fine. The higher fines would not apply to people visiting the state, Skarphol said.

The bill aims to give drivers who are living in North Dakota an incentive to update their license plates and to promote more enforcement, Skarphol said.

“We are losing that revenue as a state and still providing the roads that those people drive on,” he said.

Fargo Rep. Ed Gruchalla, retired from the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said he supports increasing fines to deter speeding, but would prefer to see fines raised across the board.

Gruchalla supports House Bill 1048, which came out of the interim Transportation Committee, which would raise speeding fines for all drivers.

For example, a driver cited for driving 75 in a 65-mph zone would pay $20 today, but under the bill,  the fine would be $50.

“That’s maybe a more equitable way to go than to pick on the out-of-staters,” said Gruchalla, a Democrat.

The bill includes a sliding scale depending on the speed limit zone and how much over the limit the motorist is driving.  More severe violations lead to substantially higher fines.

The bill has a hearing scheduled Thursday.

Skarphol says his bill would funnel the extra revenue from the additional speeding fines back to the law enforcement agency that issued the citation.

Other bill sponsors are Reps. David Drovdal, Arnegard, Patrick Hatlestad, Williston, and Sens. Ron Carlisle, Bismarck, and Stan Lyson, Williston, all Republicans.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol has not taken a position on the bill, said Sgt. Tom Iverson.

Law enforcement does issue citations for drivers who don’t have the proper license plates or vehicle registration, Iverson said.

However, it can be difficult to enforce because troopers have to rely on the drivers to determine if they are temporary workers or long-term residents, Iverson said.

“A lot of times we have to take their word for it of what their situation is,” Iverson said.

For workers who are in North Dakota on a temporary basis, the North Dakota Department of Transportation issues temporary motor vehicle registrations.

For the first 18 months of the 2011-13 biennium, the state issued about 11,650 temporary motor vehicle registrations, according to the department.

Williston truck bypass route approved

WILLISTON, N.D. – County commissioners here voted today to approve a route for a truck bypass around Williston, echoing similar action taken by city commissioners last month.

The bypass route is not the one city and county leaders preferred because it is longer and will affect more property owners. However, the North Dakota Department of Transportation learned that the preferred route would disturb Native American burial grounds and sensitive cultural resources.

Williams County Commission Chairman Dan Kalil said the commission unanimously approved a modified route that will avoid the sensitive area.

“We all know that compromises have to be made,” Kalil said.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation will continue its environmental assessment and hold a public hearing in the spring, said Jamie Olson, a department spokeswoman.

Design for the bypass is expected to be complete this summer or fall with construction beginning later this year, Olson said.

Land Board commits $2.5M in grants for Oil Patch township roads

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Land Board committed an additional $2.5 million in energy impact grants today to help townships in oil-impacted areas repair roads damaged by heavy truck traffic.

During the current biennium, the Land Board has awarded a total of $124 million in grants to help cities, townships and other political subdivisions in the Oil Patch address impacts created by rapid development.

For a complete list of projects approved for funding, go to www.nd.gov/energyimpact. The grants awarded today can be found here.

New truck route relieves congestion in Williston

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, center, speaks during a press conference near Williston, N.D., with other state and local officials to officially open the new truck bypass route around Williston. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

WILLISTON, N.D. – Truck traffic kept interrupting a press conference here Monday that marked the opening of a new truck bypass, and that couldn’t have made Williston Mayor Ward Koeser any happier.

Each truck that takes the new 16-mile route that officially opened Monday is one less truck that will travel through Williston, where traffic counts exceed 28,000 vehicles a day compared to the 4,000 vehicles that traveled there four years ago.

“Every time a truck goes by here, I internally smile,” Koeser said during the event along the new truck route.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation widened and paved Williams County roads 1 and 6 to connect to U.S. Highway 2 north and west of Williston to create a temporary west bypass. The goal of the project is to relieve traffic in the city while officials develop a permanent bypass.

Francis Ziegler, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, estimates that about 60 percent to 70 percent of the more than 11,000 trucks that travel through Williston daily will use the temporary bypass. Local delivery trucks and trucks that need to access a water depot within the city limits will continue to travel in Williston, he said.

Truck drivers won’t be required to use the new route, but companies will encourage drivers to go that way, Ziegler said.

“We believe they’re going to find that using this bypass will save them time,” Ziegler said. “Time is money.”

Gov. Jack Dalrymple remarked that on the way to the event, his vehicle was able to get through the stoplight at the intersection of highways 2 and 85 on the first try.

“That’s a breakthrough,” Dalrymple said.

The $12 million project was funded with $8 million directly from the state and $4 million from Williams County funding that came from the state’s County and Township Road Reconstruction program.

Construction on a temporary east bypass, which will use county roads 9 and 6, will being this fall with completion set for the end of the year.

Officials continue to work on selecting a site for a permanent truck bypass. Possible Native American burial grounds were identified in the area of one of the preferred routes, and officials are studying that further, Ziegler said.

The goal is to complete the permanent route, a $30 million to $40 million project, by the summer of 2014, Ziegler said.

Relief for other communities is on the way. There are bypass routes being planned for Watford City, Alexander, New Town, Dickinson and Killdeer, Ziegler said.

Dalrymple also said he would like to see Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City converted to four lanes no later than 2014, which prompted Koeser and others to applaud.

Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Commission, said local officials see the transportation improvements as signs of progress.

“Quality of life is what we’re trying to improve and this is a great first step,” Kalil said.

NDSU, DSU partnership would bolster transportation expertise

WILLISTON, N.D. – North Dakota State University and Dickinson State University want to team up to bring transportation and logistics expertise to western North Dakota.

NDSU’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute is proposing to establish a program at Dickinson State to provide technical training programs that would benefit the oil, gas and manufacturing industries.

Denver Tolliver, the institute’s director, said there’s a great need in western North Dakota for employees who have a background in transportation and supply chain logistics.

“It’s not just getting the petroleum out, but it’s getting all of the inputs in, and it’s also managing the overall supply chains of the folks that work for the oil and gas industry,” Tolliver said.

NDSU is proposing to adapt its courses in transportation and logistics to be offered online through Dickinson State. The plan also calls for some face-to-face courses that would be offered at Dickinson State through a compressed format.

If the program is approved, the transportation institute would have a larger presence in oil country and staff would be able to provide expertise to local governments being affected by increased truck traffic and oil development, Tolliver said.

“They’re kind of being overwhelmed with a lot of traffic growth, a lot of developments in the area,” Tolliver said.

The NDSU institute is asking for about $400,000 to launch the program, which would be part of the North Dakota University System’s legislative budget request for the 2013-15 biennium.

The state Board of Higher Education will hear the proposal today during a meeting at Williston State College.