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I-29 closure frustrates residents, but officials expected that

Kristen Borysewicz was mad at whoever decided to keep Interstate 29 open as long as it was Sunday. She and her mother, Patt Rall, were heading south from Larimore, N.D., to Fargo for a show. Near the Harwood exit, they found themselves in the mid...

Dashboard view of I-29 flooding
A view of a flooded stretch of I-29 north of Fargo on Sunday (Herald photo by Brad Dokken).

Kristen Borysewicz was mad at whoever decided to keep Interstate 29 open as long as it was Sunday.

She and her mother, Patt Rall, were heading south from Larimore, N.D., to Fargo for a show. Near the Harwood exit, they found themselves in the middle of a shallow lake that appeared on the interstate.

The authorities always say it's dangerous to drive through moving water, she said, and that water sure looked like it was moving.

That morning, she'd checked road conditions on the state website and online news reports, she said.

"There was mention of water at the Harwood exit, but certainly nothing of an alarming nature," she said. By the time she saw the sign south of the exit flashing "Watch for water on the road," it was too late to turn away, she said.


She could tell that to Capt. Eldon Mehrer, head of the State Highway Patrol's southeast district, and Bob Walton, head of the Department of Transportation's Fargo district. But they said they've gotten plenty of calls of that nature. In fact, they expect the calls.

"There are always people that think you shut it down too early," Walton said. "And there are people that think you shut it down too late."

"It's a Catch-22," Mehrer said.

On the scene

Actually, there was a good chance that Walton or Mehrer or other people working for them were on that flooded highway with Borysewicz. Their job, they said, was to drive up and down the three-mile stretch that was flooded, keeping an eye on the depth of the water and how safe it was to drive through it.

"I never thought for a moment that anybody was in jeopardy," Walton said.

As far as Mehrer knows, of all the cars and trucks that went through before I-29 was shut down before nightfall, there was one stalled car.

"We were able to get in there within a few minutes and get the people retrieved," he said.


Before it became too dark to see, the state shut down I-29 and directed traffic on a 60-mile detour west on N.D. Highway 200 and south on N.D. Highway 18. Drivers got back on the interstate system at the Casselton exit on I-94.

The Harwood area is around where the Sheyenne, the Rush and the Maple rives converge, Walton said, and it's always been seen as a vulnerable area.

Many factors

State law says Mehrer is the one with the final authority over road closures in his district, but he always works with the DOT's district engineer.

They say there's no clear set of criteria for closing a road; it comes down to a judgment call based on observations.

"There's just a myriad of situations that can affect that," Mehrer said. "To give you a concrete answer, we'll do this in this situation or that in that situation, that's tough for me to do."

For example, while the depth of the water is an important factor, there's no set depth requiring highway closure, according to Mehrer.

If the water is not so deep that it causes engines to stall and prevents drivers from seeing road markings and stay on the road, it's generally safe to drive through. To increase visibility Sunday, the state deployed orange traffic pylons to indicate the center line.


But if the wind is very strong, the waves would make it much harder to see the markings, and the movement of the water can move the pylons and cause disorientation in drivers. At the same time, the moving water could gouge soil from underneath the road, causing it to break.

Keep traffic flow

Mehrer and Walton said they have to balance their caution, though, with the need to keep people and goods flowing. They can't preemptively close a highway when nothing's caused a problem, they said, because then people will see that there isn't a problem and complain.

That's where the state's road-condition alerts come in, according to Mehrer. If the roads are rough, there's a travel alert. If they're really rough, there's a no-travel advisory. If they're truly dangerous, then the state closes the roads.

Sometimes, even with an advisory, the weather can play tricks on people.

Mehrer remembers the huge blizzard in March that stranded some 800 vehicles west of Fargo. The state had put out warnings all day, he said, but when he left Fargo and headed west to Jamestown, the sun was shining and it was about 30 degrees. It wasn't until he got to Valley City that he ran into the blizzard and visibility plunged.

He said he figures a lot of drivers were fooled, too, and may have wanted to push it because of all the high school sporting events that weekend. "A lot of people thought 'I can get out there and beat the storm,'" he said.

With the I-29 closure, he said, drivers probably were fooled by how dry it looked at the last exit they could take to avoid the water.


When will it reopen?

The question now is when I-29 will reopen. Chances are that won't happen right after the water recedes.

Walton said his crews will have to evaluate the road structures, checking for cavities in the underlying soil that floodwaters have gouged. Sometimes, they have to go to extremes, he said, such as the time three years ago when there was a big cavity under I-29 near the Sheyenne River bridge. That time, he said, they had to drill through the pavement to check how far the cavity extended.

The state has an incentive to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Highways 200 and 18, the detour route, weren't built to endure the kind of pounding that I-29 traffic can put out, especially with spongy soil not giving as much support, Walton said. And the people that live on those roads, he said, "Casselton, Arthur and Hunter aren't used to having an Interstate run through their towns, as you can imagine."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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