North Dakota Road Network

By | October 13, 2022

North Dakota has a very extensive road network for the state’s population density. Many of the roads that form the grid are paved, far more than in neighboring Montana, or neighboring Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces. However, the number of Interstate Highways is limited.

Road management

district lanekm of which IH
Bismarck 4,505 km 716 km
Devil’s Lake 3,707 km 0 km
Dickinson 3,200 km 640 km
fargo 2,935 km ?
Grand Forks 3.186 km ?
Minot 3,700 km 0 km
Valley City 3,162 km ?
Williston 3,112 km 0 km

The state highway authority is the North Dakota Department of Transportation. The DOT is known for managing the most miles of road per employee. North Dakota also has the largest road network by population, with 267 miles of road per 1,000 residents. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is the second smallest in the United States by number of employees. Only Hawaii has a smaller DOT.

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The North Dakota Department of Transportation was established in 1989, although it was preceded by other agencies, beginning with the North Dakota State Highway Commission in 1913. The DOT manages more than 4,800 structures, including approximately 1,725 bridges, of which 95% average. are in acceptable or good condition. The state has a total of 32,418 kilometers of paved road, but only part of this is under state management, namely approximately 13,675 kilometers. The North Dakota Department of Transportation has eight regional districts. In 2012, there were a total of 63,706 signposts and road signs in North Dakota under the management of the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

Interstate Highways

North Dakota’s road network.

North Dakota ‘s two primary Interstate Highways are Interstate 29 , which forms a north-south route through the far east of the state, and Interstate 94, which forms an east-west route through the southern half of the state. Both freeways converge in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city. The only other highway in North Dakota is Interstate 194, which forms a spur in the state capital Bismarck. There are no other freeways in North Dakota.

Nearly everywhere the Interstate Highways have 2×2 lanes, only in Fargo do both I-29 and I-94 have partial 2×3 lanes. I-29 also has a small stretch of 2×4 lanes. In Fargo, I-29 and I-94 intersect with a cloverleaf that has one flyover, for traffic from north to east.

North Dakota is an important state for traffic to and from western Canada. North-south traffic to the Winnipeg region either travels all along I-29 or from Minneapolis in conjunction with I-94. US 52 is widely used for destinations further west.

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North Dakota’s first highway was I-94 between Jamestown and Valley City that opened in 1958. Most of I-29 and I-94 opened in the 1960s and 1970s, with the last section of I-29 opening in 1977, completing the Interstate Highways in North Dakota. No new freeways have been built since then.

US Highways

Several US Highways cross the state of North Dakota. US 2 forms the east-west link through northern North Dakota and serves regional cities such as Williston and Minot. US 2 is largely a 2×2 divided highway in North Dakota. US 52 forms a diagonal connection that is double-numbered to I-94 in the east of the state, but runs northwest from Jamestown, through Minot to the border with Canada. This is a relatively important road for through traffic to Saskatchewan and Alberta.

US 81 largely coincides with I-29 in North Dakota. US 83 is the main north-south connection of central North Dakota, connecting the capital Bismarck and Minot, among others. US 85 is the major north-south route of western North Dakota and a major transportation route for the oil industry in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

A small portion of US 10 runs through North Dakota, passing through Fargo only. US 12 runs through southwest North Dakota, but doesn’t serve any significant places. US 281 is a north-south route through the eastern half of North Dakota and is quite long with US 52 double-numbered north of Jamestown.

State Highways

The road number shield for state highways introduced in 2016.

The state highways are North Dakota’s secondary road network. They sometimes supplement the main road network, especially because the US Highways sometimes run quite far apart and do not all open up counties. Although various state highways cover great distances, they often only open up small villages. State highways are almost always two-lane roads. There are hardly any state highways in southwestern North Dakota. The road network is largely divided into a grid, although by no means all roads in the grid are state highways, most are managed by the counties. Many state highways are only lightly driven.



In the late 1800s, North Dakota’s land was divided into a grid via the Public Land Survey System. In 1904, the state was determined to have 95,465 miles of public roads, mostly dirt roads and tracks dividing the grid. At the time, the state had more than 300,000 inhabitants. Only 12 kilometers of the road network was paved with cobblestones and 330 kilometers of gravel to provide. In 1911, vehicle registration became mandatory. The tax was $3 per vehicle, in that year the state had 7,201 vehicles. The first number plates were also introduced. In 1913, the State Highway Commission was established, which had an advisory function. The number of cars increased sharply, in 1915 there were already 40,000 passenger cars in the state. The roads were funded primarily from local resources or from the registration tax at the time, but the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 made $75 million ($1.6 billion in 2014 after inflation adjusted) available to states. This money was allowed to be spent on 6 percent of the states’ road networks, which they considered to be the most important.

The first roads

In 1917 the first plan for a network of state highways was developed, but implementation was delayed by the First World War. The highway network was developed by the State Highway Department, and from 1920 several bridges were built over the Red River on the Minnesota border. In 1920, there were 91,000 vehicles in North Dakota. The state has a very large public road network because almost the entire state could be divided into a grid for agriculture. In 1921, North Dakota was determined to have the seventh largest road network in the United States, while the state had only 650,000 residents at the time. In 1922 the first bridge over the Missouri River opened at the capital Bismarck. In 1923, a road number plan was drawn up in the state, and the state had more than 100,000 vehicles from then on.

Development of the road network

It wasn’t until 1925 that the first road in North Dakota was paved, a 12-mile section of what would later become US 10 between Bismarck and Mandan. In 1926, the first US Highways were introduced in North Dakota. In 1927, the network of roads in North Dakota consisted of 10 miles of asphalt, 2,153 miles of gravel, and 4,4529 miles of dirt. In 1928, US 10 was completed through the Badlands in western North Dakota. Traffic was almost impossible in winter because there was no organized snow removal. In 1930, the first snowplows were purchased by the Department of Transportation. In 1930, North Dakota had only 12 miles of paved road outside built-up areas, the rest was gravel or dirt road. In that year, the planned network of state highways was established as 12,228 kilometers.

While the rest of the Midwestern United States paved roads extensively as part of the New Deal to overcome the economic depression of the 1930s, North Dakota has stagnated somewhat. In 1938, the state had only 1,368 miles of paved road, the least of any state, but over the next two years, a relatively large portion was further paved. In 1940, the state highway network consisted of 11,826 kilometers of road, including 7,241 kilometers of gravel, 2,687 kilometers of asphalt and 74 kilometers of concrete. A small part was still completely unpaved.

From the Second World War

During World War II, almost no money was allowed to be spent on roads, and the condition of the road network deteriorated quite quickly, a phenomenon that was visible all over the United States. In 1945, it was determined that $78 million ($1 billion after inflation in 2015) was needed to repair North Dakota’s road network. In 1951, North Dakota had 3,747 miles of paved road. There was also 2,153 kilometers of gravel road. In 1956 the system of Interstate Highways created. The first section to be built in North Dakota was part of US 10 (I-94) between Valley City and Jamestown. This 60 km long route was opened to traffic in 1958. In 1959 another 77 miles opened up between Jamestown and Dawson. Also opened the first section of I-29, a 55 kilometer stretch from Drayton to the border with Canada.

It was remarkable that long stretches of freeway were already in use in North Dakota in the late 1950s, since much of the road network was not even paved at the time. In 1960, a 20-mile stretch of I-94 opened through the Fargo region, from the Minnesota border to Casselton. The Interstate Highways network was completed in the 1960s and 1970s, the last section opened to traffic in 1977. From 1980 the focus was on maintenance rather than expansion, partly because the population of North Dakota had hardly increased for decades. Between 1920 and 1980 the population grew by only 10,000. However, larger parts of US 2 and US 52 have been converted to a 2×2 divided highway widened, given their function for long-distance traffic. North Dakota’s first noise barrier was built in 2003, along I-94 in Fargo. In 2007, Fargo’s reconstruction of I-29 was completed. In 2008, US 2 between Williston and Minot was fully equipped with 2×2 lanes. In 2012, the first roundabout opened on a state highway in North Dakota, on SR-22 near Killdeer. Oil production around Williston also increased sharply during this time. US 85 became infamous as one of the most unsafe roads in the state, and several projects were completed shortly afterwards to make US 85 safer.

Spring floods

A WIPP along I-94.

In North Dakota, large-scale flooding of agricultural land is common in the spring, when the snow melts but the ground is still frozen and the water remains on the land, or when the rivers cannot drain the melt water fast enough. The average maximum temperature is below zero from mid-November to mid-March, so all snow that falls usually remains in that period. In spring, temperatures rise rapidly from 2°C in March to 13°C in April and 20°C in May, often causing snow to melt in a short time.

To protect Interstate Highways and other dual-lane roads, the North Dakota Department of Transportation uses barriers filled with water. This is a Water Inflated Protective Barrier, also known as a Water Inflated Property Protector (WIPP). Because water is available at those locations, it can be used flexibly. As a result, the important through roads need to be closed much less often due to high water.

Traffic intensities

Traffic in the state of North Dakota is low due to the low population density. Outside Fargo, the I-29 largely has less than 10,000 vehicles per day, only the part between Fargo and Grand Forks has 12,000 vehicles. There are only 3,500 vehicles at the Canadian border. The I-94 shows a somewhat similar picture, outside Fargo the highway is very quiet. Only just over 10,000 vehicles drive between Jamestown and Fargo, but westwards it is lower. The quietest stretch of highway is I-94 on the border with Montana, where 3,200 vehicles drive.

North Dakota’s busiest point is I-94 in Fargo, on the Minnesota border with 66,000 vehicles. Up to 50,000 vehicles operate on I-29 in Fargo. The I-94 in Bismarck has a maximum of 40,000 vehicles.

The 2×2 US 2 counts between 2,000 and 8,000 vehicles outside the larger towns. The 2×2 US 83 has 5,000 to 7,000 vehicles between Bismarck and Minot. The quietest US Highway in North Dakota is US 12 near the border with Montana, which has fewer than 700 vehicles.

North Dakota Road Network