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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 10 2009

Rut complaints date back to October

Fargo officials were warned as early as mid-October that potholes on the shoulder of a South University Drive bypass could make driving dangerous, according to a report presented to the City Commission on Monday.

The report, accepted on a 5-0 vote, also documents that no firm decision to fix what later became a rut was made until late Dec. 9 – less than a day before a crash there killed 8-year-old Amanda Leininger.

There was no decisive action for several days before the Dec. 10 crash, despite phone calls, e-mails and radioed requests by citizens and police to repair the rut near El Cano Drive, the report indicates.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said once the Police Department’s report on the crash comes out, “it’s up to the attorneys” to determine if the city acted quickly enough to make repairs.

Tom O’Halloran, a former criminal investigator for the Internal Revenue Service, who authored the report with Norm Anderson, a former federal prosecutor, said they offered up no conclusions.

“We weren’t evaluating the city. We were just reporting what happened,” he said.

One of the first complaints came just after construction began on the bypass.

About Oct. 15, Brent Blatchford of 7009 S. University Drive called the Fargo street department to report a series of potholes on the west shoulder of the road.

Blatchford reported that he was told the problem was the state’s responsibility. He called the Cass County Highway Department, who said it was the city’s project.

Blatchford then called the city street department again, and was told to contact Master Construction.

Blatchford said he gave up and forgot about the problem until about Nov. 30, when he hit the rut. He called the street department again, but no one remembers talking with him, the report said.

About Nov. 27, Desiree Morton was driving south on South University near El Cano Drive when the driver in front of her went into a rut, overcorrected and slid into the opposite lane.

Morton said she called the street department and asked if they “could get out there to look at it before winter because someone could get hurt.”

However, she was told a patch repair would not work, and no one at the department remembered her call, the report said.

On Dec. 8, Officer Troy Hannig responded to a crash caused when a driver overcorrected after hitting the rut.

Hannig told the Red River Valley Dispatch Center that “there’s a huge rut along the side of the road” that needed repair.

Lee Anderson, a street department supervisor who looked at the rut, told investigators it didn’t seem urgent compared with snow removal.

On Dec. 9, Fargo police Officer Jason Abel wrote in an accident report that “the shoulder in that area is extremely sharp and needs to be addressed.”

Blatchford also saw a car hit the rut and spin out that day, prompting him to send an e-mail to the city.

“The shoulder on South University at about 4400 Block on the west side needs desperate repair. I have watched six cars in the last two days go onto the shoulder and lose control, and am sure there have been a lot more. Please look into this ASAP,” Blatchford wrote.

Through the afternoon of Dec. 9, officials discussed how to repair it.

In the meantime, Debbie Helbling, who lives on El Cano Drive, left a voicemail with the Fargo Police Department.

“If the city does not get this fixed immediately, I will notify all people involved in an accident to sue the city, if hopefully they don’t get killed on this high-traffic area. The street department needs to get out here immediately and get that fixed before somebody is seriously hurt.”

On Dec. 10, City Engineer Mark Bittner drove to what he thought was the site about 7 a.m., but couldn’t see anything wrong. As it turned out, he hadn’t gone far enough south, the report said.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said he thought the city’s “response times were quite good, they just weren’t fast enough.”

Zavoral said most of the problems seem to revolve around how well the city’s departments are communicating with each other.

He said city staff are now examining the issues and preparing policies that he wants ready for the City Commission on June 1.

He estimates the report will cost $10,000 to $15,000.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583