Rep. Vicky Steiner has heard the jokes and, in fact, invites them. She knows the idea of a ferry crossing Lake Sakakawea, carrying cars and people, sounds like a throwback to the 1800s. But she's willing to take the barbs for the sake of getting out the word.
"We had a roast the other day for some Dickinson legislators. Mike Lefor, Rich Wardner and myself were the subjects getting roasted. They told me they were going to make fun of me for the ferry bill, and I said, 'That's fine. Go ahead,'" said Steiner, a Republican who represents District 37 in Dickinson. "I didn't mind because I figured there was going to be a lot of people in that room who had never heard of my bill. And I was right. There were a number of people who came up to me after to say, 'I didn't know anything about this. Tell me more.'"
The bill is HB 1352, introduced by Steiner, reviving the idea of a ferry across massive Lake Sakakawea to connect North Dakota Highway 8 near Twin Buttes to the bank on the north side of the lake near North Dakota Highway 1804, south of Parshall. The ferry would travel 5 miles by water and take approximately 30 minutes to cross.
That is significantly less time than it takes to drive between those two locations, which are about 110 miles apart by road. That's about a 90-minute drive.
The nearest lake crossings to the proposed ferry site are the Four Bears Bridge about 90 miles to the west and U.S. Highway 83 about 80 miles to the east.
Steiner said it's a safety issue, too.
"I don't know if a lot of people here at the Capitol drive the oil-field roads in the summertime, when the roads are filled with trucks trying to get their business done," Steiner said. "The oil fields slow down in the winter, but in the summer months they are busy, and the roads can be dangerous. If we can limit the time some people spend on those roads in their cars, I think we will save some lives.
"Somebody's life is going to be saved by that ferry."
The idea has been kicking around western North Dakota for a few years, and Steiner introduced a bill in 2017, which was rejected. HB 1352, too, was given a do-not-pass recommendation from the Transportation Committee and was defeated 74-17 on the House floor Thursday, Jan. 31.
But Steiner says nothing is ever dead in Bismarck until it's fully dead, cold, buried and the Legislature adjourns. She believes a ferry could gain momentum because it appears the Three Affiliated Tribes, who would have to sign off on the project, are on board after initial hesitation. A ferry would make it much easier for people from the Twin Buttes area to visit family from White Shield and Parshall, for example.
Steiner's bill asks for $10 million in state funds, although she said it might cost North Dakota taxpayers less than that. A 2017 feasibility study by Ulteig Engineering estimated about 80 percent of the project's total cost would be covered by federal grants.
Cost estimates are based on a ferry that could carry 14 cars and 30 people. Operating costs of about $750,000 per year would be covered by revenue generated by users, the study said.
"I think $10 million is a very good investment for the four counties that would mostly benefit from a ferry. If you look at the billions of dollars in state tax revenue generated by those four counties in the last several years because of oil, I think a $10 million investment is very reasonable," Steiner said.
It's also much cheaper than building a bridge, which the feasibility study estimated to cost between $400 million and $500 million. The ferry could only operate about eight months of the year because Lake Sakakawea freezes over in the winter.
Ferries are common on the East and West coasts, and at one time were used extensively on the Missouri and Red rivers in North Dakota. When the Garrison Dam was completed in 1953, backing up the Missouri and forming Lake Sakakawea, all but one ferry disappeared. So, too, did the original Four Bears Bridge that crossed the Missouri near Twin Buttes.
The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation has been split into five segments separated by water since.
"It's been 65 years since the two sides of the lake have been easily connected at that spot. I think that's long enough," Steiner said. "There are family benefits, economic benefits, tourism benefits. I'm really sold on it, even if I don't think my fellow House members are."