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Patrick Springer, Published February 19 2013

ND, Minnesota make highway closure decisions on a case-by-case basis

FARGO – The decision to close a highway because of hazardous weather is a case-by-case judgment call mutually made by transportation and law enforcement officials.

The recent spate of accidents involving stranded vehicles on snow-clogged or icy highways – including a closed stretch of Interstate 94 near Spiritwood and a stretch of I-94 near Barnesville, Minn., that was the site of a deadly crash on Monday – have highlighted the issue.

In North Dakota, the decision about whether to close a road or highway ultimately rests with the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction, Bob Walton, district engineer for the North Dakota Department of Transportation in Fargo, said Tuesday.

“We provide input, maybe even a suggestion,” he said. “We’re in a lot more localities than the highway patrol,” referring to plow crews and others checking road conditions.

There are no rigid standards for closing a road, Walton said, but visibility and the ability to keep the road open are key considerations.

If whiteout conditions are only temporary, closure usually isn’t indicated, he said.

Sgt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said stranded vehicles that block the road create hazards that trigger immediate closure.

“Action needs to be taken right away to prevent further bottlenecking of the traffic,” he said.

Troopers consult with highway supervisors to decide whether a road should be closed, Iverson said.

“There really is no set threshold,” he said, adding that a blocked roadway usually triggers a closure, often involving clogged underpasses.

In Minnesota, troopers also consult with highway officials in deciding whether to close a road, said Sgt. Jesse Grabow.

“We work together on it,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522