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Erik Burgess, Published July 21 2012

A difficult legal process for getting new traffic safety signage leaves some Moorhead residents seeing red

MOORHEAD – When it comes to the safety of his children, Scott Burtsfield isn’t interested in playing games.

But due to a blind corner near his 33rd Avenue South home, he was doing just that – dodging cars on a daily basis like everyone’s favorite eight-bit frog.

“I just got tired of playing Frogger,” Burtsfield said. “And I was concerned about my children, my neighbor’s children and the neighborhood.”

The 43-year-old father of two went to the city with specific demands – larger speed signs, moving a 40-mph sign out of his neighborhood and installing crosswalk signs to warn drivers of pedestrians.

They approved much of his request but didn’t install the pedestrian signs, a crucial piece for Burtsfield.

“That was frustrating,” he said.

“You feel like you get kicked in the stomach a little bit.”

Burtsfield is not alone. About 20 requests for signage change are received by the city’s engineering department per year.

On average, just over half of these requests in Moorhead are either denied or altered, according to engineering data from the past three years. The numbers are similar in Fargo.

While Burtsfield’s request was approved, the city altered it, removing what he saw as a key piece – drivers need to know there are pedestrians.

“The greatest piece of that was the inability to really cross the road without taking your life in your hand,” he said.

Signage requests go through a fairly rigorous process, Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said. His office consults state law and a Federal Highway Administration manual that details specifically when signage change is appropriate.

“One close call is generally not going to be enough to justify installing a sign,” Zimmerman said.

The engineering office then submits a recommendation to the City Council, which officially approves or denies the request.

Across the river, it’s a bit different. Fargo Transportation Engineer Jeremy Gorden said his office handles requests without city approval.

“I hear from a lot of people ‘I almost got hit,’” Gorden said, but he agreed that close-call anecdotes are not enough to justify changing traffic law.

Zereen Merjdeen, 30, of Moorhead, has had her share of close calls. She said cars zoom by her home daily. Her request to install a stop or yield sign at the uncontrolled intersection of 20th Street and Sixth Avenue North was denied.

“I was really upset because … I have five kids,” Merjdeen said. “Our house is really small, so in the summer they have to play outside.”

Zimmerman said her request is common.

“There’s a very, very common misconception that if we install a stop sign we’re going to slow traffic down,” Zimmerman said, but stop signs assign right of way, he said. They don’t control speed.

“That’s the old fashioned way of controlling speeds,” Gorden said.

To hinder speeders, the city could instead install speed bumps or increase police enforcement in the area, Gorden said.

“There’s a perception that we can correct any issue by putting up a sign,” Zimmerman said. “And in reality accidents can happen and do happen, and we can’t 100 percent guarantee that we would prevent them by putting a sign in place.”

Burtsfield eventually brought his case back to the city, and pedestrian signs were recently installed.

“We got our signs, and we’re very happy about it,” he said. “Our neighbors have been thanking me.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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