Statewide, it’s being reported that traffic fatalities are down for the year, below 100 for the first time in 17 years. Gov. Doug Burgum’s office credited the Vision Zero traffic safety initiative, which has stressed reaching zero fatalities in the state.
But in the Oil Patch, fatalities are up year over year for at least one county.
McKenzie County posted 11 fatalities in 2019. That figure was four more than 2018 fatalities, and two more than 2017, according to statistics obtained by the Williston Herald from the North Dakota Transportation.
In Williams County, meanwhile, there were six fatalities for 2019. That was down from 2018, when there were 10 fatalities, but even with 2017, when there were also six.
Both counties are substantially down compared to 2012, when McKenzie had 19 fatalities and Williams had 27.
A look at the locations of fatalities from 2017 to 2019 shows that Highway 85 claimed seven of the two counties’ combined fatalities. One of the Highway 85 deaths was in Williams County at mile marker 202 in 2018..
Two of the Highway 85 deaths in McKenzie County were within just a few miles of marker 157, which was also the scene of a fatal accident Thursday morning, Jan. 9.
A 58-year-old Alexander woman died of injuries sustained in a head-on collision and was pronounced dead at the scene. A 27-year-old Williston man, meanwhile, was seriously injured and is being treated at a Williston hospital.
That portion of the highway, west of Watford city, is already four-lane. The Highway Patrol’s report said the weather was overcast at the time of the early-morning accident.
Highway 85 at times led the state in fatalities during the boom. But it didn’t log the most fatalities in the three-year period for the two counties. Two other highways had more.
In Williams County, Highway 2 had 11 fatalities at various mile markers. There were two fatalities on Highway 2 that were within 1 mile of each other at mile marker 25 and 26, in 2019.
In McKenzie County, meanwhile, Highway 23 logged eight fatalities. Two of the fatal accidents, one of which claimed three lives, were within a mile of each other at mile markers 28 and 29, while another two were within a mile of each other at mile markers 13 and 14.
The Oil Patch has continued to fight for funding to fix its roads, many of which aren’t designed to handle the heavy truck traffic that the oil and gas industry has brought with it.
Sen. Dale Patten, R-McKenzie County, told the Williston Herald that Highway 85 funding, to fix problems south of the Long X Bridge, continues to have top billing in his legislative efforts.
“We had some pretty significant state funding committed to that, but it was dependent on federal grant money coming through,” he said. “And we didn’t get any of that this year.”
Highway 85 is a federal highway.
“It is appropriate to have federal funding for it,” Patten said. “But right now we are not getting it.”
A complete four-lane from Watford City to I-94 would cost about $450 million, Patten said, which would be a heavy lift for North Dakota alone.
North Dakota submitted two different grants to federal programs, each having about $900 million to distribute, to four-lane a portion of Highway 85 south of the Long X bridge.
It wasn’t chosen for either grant.
“Hopefully, in 2020, they will have some similar grant program funds available that we can apply for,” Patten said. “If that doesn’t happen, we will end up dealing with it again in the 2021 legislature.”
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who is the Senate Majority leader told the Williston Herald that the project is a high priority.
“I don’t know which fund the money will come from at this time,” he said. “But it will be a top priority to find some funding for the Highway 85 project.”
Patten said he was glad to see that deaths were down statewide.
“I’m really grateful for that,” he said. “But we are still dealing with issues here that are not resolved,” he said. “Highway 85 carries the highest over-size, over-weight permitted loads, with the exception of Highway 2, which is a four-lane highway. So it is a high-risk highway. Every year we delay, we end up with more highway deaths and accidents.”
Highway 23, Patten added, is another highway in need of attention.
“Highway 23 has some passing lanes, but there are a lot of two-lane stretches, so I’m not surprised it’s carrying an equal or higher death rate,” he said. “I was on 23 this morning (Thursday) and it was bumper to bumper.”