So, Who’s Going To Pay For The New Bridge Over The Little Missouri River?

I need to clarify a few things and bring you up to date on the ongoing saga of the proposed new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora. A project which, if completed, could be an environmental disaster for the North Dakota Bad Lands. That’s why I keep writing about it.

To review, Billings County wants to build a bridge and improve roads to move traffic between US Highway 85 and ND Highway 16. To set the scene, Highway 16 is a narrow two-lane road running along the extreme western edge of North Dakota, going north of I-94 from Beach to, well, almost nowhere, except the oilfields of McKenzie County, west of Watford City. Highway 85 goes north from Belfield to Williston, and is soon to be a four-lane divided highway.

Here are two numbers to remember:

  • It’s about 40 miles, as the crow flies, between Highway 85 and Highway 16. So if a new bridge is built, and oil trucks or ranchers or tourists want to use the new bridge to get from one highway to the other, it would involve driving 35 mph (the expected speed limit) for at least 40 miles on gravel roads. Actually, more like 50 miles, because there is no straight shot east and west up in the Badlands—you have to wind around buttes and canyons. This is some pretty rugged country.
  • The distance between existing bridges over the Little Missouri River is 70 miles. There’s a bridge south of Watford City on Highway 85, where the Little Missouri passes through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and two bridges at Medora, one in town and one out on I-94 a mile north of town.

The county argues that the 70-mile distance between existing bridges justifies a new bridge. Although the county has claimed the bridge is for ranchers who live there, and emergency services, a new bridge would, in reality, just make life easier for the oil industry.

When this idea first surfaced back in 2008, the plan was to put the bridge about halfway between the existing bridges, hard up against the Elkhorn Ranch site, home to Theodore Roosevelt, now maintained by the National Park Service as a unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The huge public outcry sidelined that proposal.

Now, a new Environmental Impact Statement is about to be released, and that new document, written by KLJ, the county’s engineering firm, has determined the best place to put the bridge is about five miles south of the Elkhorn, where the Little Missouri passes through the historic Short Ranch, once home to another colorful and historic North Dakota politician, former United States Congressman Donald Levingston Short.

Okay, that much we talked about in earlier blog posts. Here are a couple things we haven’t discussed yet.

WHO PAYS?

Billings County is paying for the EIS, and has spent more than $2 million so far. The bridge itself, with associated improvements to roads leading to it, is listed in North Dakota’s State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for 2016-2019 as a $15 million dollar project. Of that, the STIP says, about $12.1 million would be expected to be federal funds, and $2.9 million local funds, a standard 80-20 match formula that the state and federal transportation departments use on projects like these.

Except that the State DOT made a surprise announcement in March: There is no plan to give federal funds to this project. A North Dakota DOT spokesman told me that there never was any intent that federal funds would be used for the project—it’s always been assumed (by the State DOT, anyway) that the county would pay the whole cost.

Well, excuse me, but it’s always been assumed by everyone else except the DOT that this would be a federally funded project. In fact, I asked the KLJ people at the meeting in 2012 who would be paying for the bridge, and this was their response:  “Well, it’s different for different phases. So for the environmental study that we’re in right now, Billings County is paying for that. Once it goes to construction, that could be partially federal funding, partially Billings County funding, or a variety of the two, depending on what kind of federal funding is available at the time.”

I pressed for more information, asking a representative of the Federal Highway Administration who was at the meeting who would be paying for the project. Her response: “The design and construction, that is dependent upon, I would say, the federal highway bill.”

An equally nebulous response. These folks are really good at not really answering the questions. But let me outline the process that would be involved if the federal government did agree to pay for a share of the project, maybe even 80 per cent of it.

Each year, the state of North Dakota and its 49 sister states get hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to build and maintain highways, streets and bridges. This is money from the federal gas tax, returned to the state in which it is collected. In the upcoming biennium, I think the state will get more than half a billion dollars. In the old days, prior to 2010, there were funds set aside and “earmarked” in Washington for specific projects. It was the way Congressmen and Senators got themselves re-elected, by delivering the goods to their home states.

No more. Earmarks are a thing of the past, and now states just get a chunk of money, and Governors and Legislators decide where and how it will be spent. So the Little Missouri Crossing project is listed in the STIP for the 2016-2019 time period. If there are to be federal funds used to build it, Billings County will have to come hat in hand to Bismarck and ask for the $12.1 million.

But state DOT officials who dole out the federal dollars say they have no plan to give Billings County the money. Never have. That leaves me scratching my head.

Was it necessary for Billings County to spend more than $2 million dollars on an Environmental Impact Statement, if, all along, they have been planning to shell out the whole $15 million? I’m pretty sure they have that much in the bank—they are one of the richest, if not the richest, county in the state. Last year they collected nearly $11 million in various oil and other mineral interest royalties and taxes. And they’ve been doing that for years. In a county with just 783 people, according to the 2010 census. That’s income of almost $14,000 for every man, woman and child in the county. Could they afford to pay for the bridge? Probably.

I asked officials at both the state and federal highway agencies why the county would choose to do an expensive EIS, and why it’s the Federal Highway Administration that gets final sign-off on the project before it is built, if there’s no intent to get federal funds.

And why would they agree to put the bridge somewhere nobody really wants it, causing hard feelings and lawsuits between neighbors, in a small county with fewer than 800 residents, all of whom know each other? Why have they gone through this five-year delay process? Why didn’t they just go build a bridge when the boom was on, when they really could make a case for needing it? And why didn’t they build it where they wanted it?

The answer was the same from both the state and federal spokespersons: “Well, just in case they DO decide to seek federal funds, they have to have an EIS.”

Uh huh. Just in case.

Anybody want to make bets on that?

STILL COMING CLOSE TO THE ELKHORN

Here’s something else nobody is talking about yet. Because of the way roads wind through the Bad Lands to accommodate the terrain, access to the bridge from Highway 85 will take those thousand trucks, or however many show up on a given day, within about a mile of the Elkhorn Ranch site.

That’s because the route proposed by KLJ uses Blacktail Road and East River Road to get to the bridge from Highway 85, and the junction of those roads sits atop the high ridge looking down into the Little Missouri River Valley, directly above the Elkhorn Ranch site, which is just across the river, a little over a mile to the west. In fact, you can almost see the ranch site from there, looking down from the cab of a big truck.

Lush prairie grasses and sages blanket the ground where the Elkhorn Ranch house once stood (within the fenced off area) beneath the towering Cottonwood trees. Roosevelt, sitting on his porch, would have seen the swift water of the Little Missouri River rush by just beyond those trees (since T.R.’s time, the river has meandered further from the trees.)

So what’s been feared the most by the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Boone and Crockett Club and the many people who visit the ranch site on occasion just to sit in silence under the same cottonwoods that were there when Roosevelt lived there—the cacophony of noise from all those trucks, and the clouds of dust they’ll kick up—may come to pass after all.

It’s not as bad as if the trucks are going to go roaring down the hill to a crossing beside the Elkhorn, but it’s gonna be pretty noisy and pretty dusty. It’s possible Billings County will avoid that by building a new road further south, as I mentioned in my last blog, but I think that creates some problems with sensitive wildlife areas, and it adds substantially to the cost of the project. It also would likely lead to revisiting the EIS. So we’ll have to ask some questions at the public meetings about the best road between Highway 85 and the bridge.

FOUR LANES ON HIGHWAY 85

I want to add one more reminder to this. Soon we’ll be getting a look at the draft EIS on the Highway 85 project between Watford City and Belfield. That project is likely to call for a four-lane highway through the eastern edge of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and either two new bridges over the Little Missouri River or one really wide bridge.

How the state and federal highway departments deal with that is going to be the topic of some discussion. There are some very thoughtful minds at work, trying to figure out how to cause the least disruption of wildlife and scenery, as well as avoid negative impacts on the national park. I’ll try to keep you posted on this project as well.

3 Responses

  1. No Bridge Over the Lil Mo

    Jim, has Billings County stated they are planning to pay for it? (has anyone asked them if they will, if no one else chips in?) And, has anyone asked for the County’s balance sheet, to see how much money the county actually has? I would imagine that information should be publicly available, right? Thank you for your great work on this.

  2. Joan

    Jim, Could you and everybody else who contributes to this blog do me a favor? Please recommend books or documentaries that I need to educate myself about North Dakota, so I could write something factual and knowledgeable about it. Now here’s the tough part: the goal is to write something factual about oil production, since the 75th anniversary of oil production in North Dakota is 2026.

    I already have some of the pretty obvious books, like Elwyn Robinson’s “History of North Dakota” and K Norris’ “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.” I am also open to reading a good fiction book or two. Thanks, everyone!

  3. Joan

    Oh yeah, I forgot my original intent on adding to this post. I am currently reading an awesome big-picture book that I highly recommend. “The Earth has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology and Modern Life” by Meredith Sabini, Ph.D., copyright 2002. Yes, Jung the psychoanalyst had an amazing perception of how modern man ignores the Earth as his/her own peril. He visited Taos, New Mexico in 1925.

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