It's an upside-down world in the oil patch, when spending millions of dollars to acquire land to widen highways seems like chump change indeed.

The state Department of Transportation has embarked on a huge project, turning U.S. Highway 85, a notorious death trap, into a much safer four-lane corridor from Watford City to Williston. It's a distance of about 46 miles and about 7,000semi trucks.

The cost of the project is estimated at $300 million, the single largest project in terms of dollars the department has undertaken in its history.

Included in that enormous price tag is the cost of buying land from adjacent landowners in a region where property values have absolutely skyrocketed.

It's a new situation for the DOT, which for decades has maintained highways, not built them.

"We haven't acquired this much right-of-way since the '50s," said Bob Fode, DOT's director of project development.

The DOT is paying an average $22,000 an acre, or roughly $140,000 a mile for what amounts to about 20 feet on either side of the existing highway. That buys enough room to expand from two to four lanes with an interior median.

In the big picture, that comes to about 5 percent of the project cost on the stretch that's now under construction from west of Watford City to north of Alexander.

The most expensive land along that 23-mile stretch was surprisingly just outside Alexander, population 217, in a newly developed commercial area.

"There we went from a cost per acre to per foot. The land was being sold for $50,000 an acre. That was the highest we saw," Fode said.

The comparison to chump change makes more sense when a recent bid to build a nine-mile bypass around Watford City came in at $55 million, in the range of $6 million a mile. Long gone — at least in the oil patch — are the days when the DOT could figure new highway construction at $2 million a mile, said Fode.

The DOT says right-of-way for the bypass project will cost $1.6 million a mile. The bypass project requires 47 acres for every mile because it's new roadway, says project manager Wayne Zacher.

The Watford City bypass work will start soon, and the cost isn't even included in the overall Highway 85 four-lane project.

Only a few of the 80 landowners involved in right-of-way deals ended up in court-adjudicated condemnation proceedings.

It wasn't always about a dispute over money either, Fode said.

Sometimes, landowners just wanted their money faster than the average 90 days it takes to get deeds recorded in the oil patch, or they needed the court to establish clear title.

"Some just didn't like where the road was going or the value," Fode said.

Mike Knox, who manages the DOT's right-of-way program, said the relatively few disputes were partly because people understand the need for highways capable of moving 14,000 cars and semi trucks day and night.

"Everybody's in favor of the project for safety reasons, they may just wish it wasn't on their land," Knox said.

There's also the fatigue factor among landowners weary of requests to place power lines, pipelines and oil well roads and pads on their land.

"Are they tired of easements? Yes," Fode said. "It gets so they don't know who's on their land.

The department's lean right-of-way acquisition team, along with independent appraisers, has had to work rapidly to acquire land as this huge flush of money is appropriated to road projects.

Knox, the right-of-way program manager, said the team "puts its best foot forward," going by the book and standard appraisal practices.

Weather depending, the ongoing work on U.S. Highway 85 will continue for a couple of more months, but the contractors were allowed what's called "winter suspension notes," something fairly uncommon in the highway program.

The notes mean they can shut down and return next year.

"On Highway 85, we know these will be multi-year projects," Fode said.

Zacher, special project coordinator, said contractors must have the widening complete, the roadway leveled up and aggregate on the new driving surface.

"We'll do the asphalt overlay in the spring," Zacher said.

Meanwhile, the department is going after right-of-way for the remaining 23 miles from north of Alexander to the U.S. Highway 2 intersection at Williston.

This is the last of the overall project and the most expensive and difficult, because it includes replacing the bridge over the Missouri River on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land and a Wildlife Management Area. It will take federal approval of an Environmental Assessment, if not a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement.

"That will take us a little bit of work. The sun, the moon and stars will have to be in alignment," Fode said.

 


Comments

U.S highway is one of the mage projects and this could only be done by the government. There was a good amount spend on this project that can be seen in the construction of this project.

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