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After a year delay, Fargo area project will aim to prevent deadly head-on crashes

The installation of median barriers on I-94 from I-29 into West Fargo is planned for this spring.

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Traffic flows along Interstate 94 in Fargo on Dec. 20, 2021. Several miles of concrete and cable median barriers were supposed to be installed along the busy stretch of I-94, west of the I-29 interchange in Fargo in 2021. Instead, the work is scheduled for 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — A North Dakota highway safety project that was supposed to be done in 2021 is planned for this year instead, with the goal of reducing the deadliest kind of crashes.

Currently, only a grassy median separates the heavy traffic along a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 94 between Interstate 29 and Sheyenne Street in West Fargo.

In contrast, to the east, concrete median barriers have been in place on I-94 between I-29 and Fargo's border with Moorhead for years.

The barriers, proven to prevent vehicles from traveling through a median and striking others head-on, are part of North Dakota’s Vision Zero traffic safety strategy that hopes to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes.

A head-on crash near Fargo this week is an example of one that would have been prevented by a median barrier.

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A northbound pickup lost control on ice along I-29, crossed the median and hit a southbound tow truck head-on on Wednesday, Jan. 12, seven miles south of Fargo, the North Dakota Highway Patrol said.

Had barriers been in place, there would have been only one vehicle involved, not two, Capt. Bryan Niewind said.

The cable barrier would likely have absorbed the impact from the pickup and brought it to rest alongside it, Niewind said, as the barrier is designed to do.

The crash occurred where the median is narrower than usual due to a bypass built to make way for planned construction on the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion channel this summer. Because the median is so narrow, there was little chance for the vehicle to decelerate in the snow, Niewind said.

The pickup driver was wearing a seat belt and was treated for minor injuries. The patrol issued him a care required citation for driving too fast for the conditions.

The tow truck driver was not wearing a seat belt, and was hospitalized with serious injuries.

For the Fargo area project, concrete barriers will be installed along I-94 from I-29 west to the 42nd Street South overpass, and cable median barriers will go in from 42nd to Sheyenne Street.

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Joe Peyerl, assistant district engineer for the Fargo NDDOT district, said the estimated cost is just over $2 million, with the federal government covering 90%, or $1.84 million.

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The state's share is 10%, or $204,000, he said.

Other priority projects used up available funding for the Fargo barriers in 2021, pushing the project into the 2022 construction season, said David Finley, an NDDOT spokesman.

Peyerl said work was done on Veterans Boulevard, 45th Street South and the I-94 bridge under the I-29 tri-level bridge in 2021.

All of those projects had lane closures and reduced speeds, which caused traffic delays. Any more traffic control measures with median barrier construction would have added to the congestion, Peyerl said.

Median barriers were first constructed in North Dakota in 2019, with 5-mile stretches put up in Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck that year.

Prior to that, in July 2018, a head-on crash on I-29 near Hankinson killed three people from two families.

A Forum story quoted a friend of one family who blamed the deaths on a lack of median barriers.

A similar crash on I-94 near Alexandria, Minnesota, in February 2012 killed four North Dakota State University students.

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Cable median barriers were in place in some parts of Minnesota then, but not at that location. They were installed in the area two years later.

Minnesota began constructing barriers in 2004 and has well over 600 miles of them on interstate highways, including the entire length of I-94 from Moorhead to the Twin Cities.

Steel cable barriers keep a wayward vehicle from crossing over into oncoming traffic by "catching" and rebounding it along the barrier.

Some have opposed the cable barriers, including motorcycle advocacy groups, who've said the cables eliminate an "escape route" for motorcyclists and liken them to "cheese graters."

Concrete barriers are more durable and preferred for the highest traffic areas, Peyerl said.

Concrete barriers are also better for snow removal because plows and blowers can clear snow right next to them. With cable barriers, they have to keep some distance, he said.

The drawback with concrete barriers, however, is the higher cost, Peyerl said. Shoulders have to be paved, and storm sewers have to be taken into consideration when installing them.

When the 2022 Fargo project is done, median barriers will cover most of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, running from West Fargo through Moorhead and beyond along I-94 and from 19th Avenue North to 52nd Avenue South along I-29.

Across North Dakota, there are nearly 19 miles of cable median guardrails and 2.5 miles of concrete barriers.

Installation will ramp up significantly this year, when NDDOT plans to put in 73 miles of new cable guardrail, including the Fargo project.

More than 40 miles will extend from Valley City to Fargo. Ten-mile stretches of cable are also planned for Jamestown and Dickinson, Finley said.

Eventually, median barriers will cover the entire interstate highway system in North Dakota, Peyerl said.

It’s hoped the work in Fargo can start this spring. Drivers should expect some lanes and shoulders along I-94 to be closed during that time, he added.

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect reference to how far south in Fargo median barriers extend. Cable median barriers run along I-29 to 52nd Avenue South.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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