Bill Panos, new director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, visited Williston this week, making a stop at the meeting of the Williston City Commissioners.
Panos is making his way throughout the state, visiting every city, every county and every district, speaking with city leaders and legislatures to learn about the communities within the state and what the DOT can do for them. Panos stopped by the Williston City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11 to talk about the DOT, the progress its made, and what the department would be doing in Williston over the next few years.
One of the programs recently implemented, Panos said, is the “Drive ND” effort, which is working to improve driver’s license customer service and reduce wait times. The program improves services through the expansion and modernization of various driver’s license operations. Through the program, he said, wait times across the state have begun to improve. For example, he said, wait time in Fargo were reduced from more than 60 minutes to around 12 minutes.
“Sometimes it takes just having a new, fresh pair of eyes, a new approach, to come in and just ask simple questions about being able to improve services for our citizens around the state, and we’re going to continue to do that.” Panos said.
Another priority for the department, Panos explained, is to curb the amount of traffic fatalities within the state. The department, he said, considers it a top priority to bring those numbers down, not just in North Dakota, but across the country.
“In North Dakota, in this last year, about 100 people died a violent, unplanned death and didn’t go home,” he explained. “It’s happened every year, year after year. It happens 33,000 times in the United States. So, state DOTs around the country, along with the US DOT and law enforcement have been focused on this number, and reducing this number every year. It’s our primary performance metric.”
The department is investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year to keep those numbers down, Panos continued, with the state introducing its own program, Vision Zero, to reduce those fatalities. The Vision Zero plan, launched in Jan. 2018, is meant to serve as the framework to guide all statewide traffic safety activity, including widespread public education and outreach, working with the legislature to ensure state laws represent best practices in traffic safety, high visibility enforcement of existing laws, technology advancements and infrastructure and road safety improvements.
In North Dakota, the DOT provides $38 million annually for projects in cities with more than 5,000 residents. Williston receives about $880,000 for city transportation projects, with Williams County receiving around $708,365 for county projects. Additionally, Panos said the DOT has about $5 million investment into the city for highway systems and projects over the next three years. One project mentioned is the widening of Highway 85 to four lanes, which Panos said would begin very soon. moving to four lanes would improve not only the economy in the area, Panos explained, but also safety along the route, due to the amount of truck traffic that moves through the area.
Locally, commissioners asked Panos to look into prioritizing infrastructure improvements for the redevelopment of Sloulin Field, which Commission President Howard Klug said was necessary to bringing Williston into the future. Specifically, Klug spoke of the 26th street, second avenue west and 42nd street corridor, which would lead into the Williston Square development.
“In order to give our citizens what they need, we need to redevelop that.” Klug said. “We need to bring in the retail, we need to work on the civic center that’s going in there, the hockey rink. The critical thing to be able to get in there, is those two intersections. I know that they’re not in this cycle, but I would really appreciate someone taking a look at that and seeing what we can to about moving those up. More than anything, we would like to be moved up on your list so we can move the city forward.”
Panos said further announcements would be made in the coming days regarding transportation improvement projects in the area.