April 13, 2009
2009 APTA - TRB Light Rail Conference Issue
Partnerships That Save a Community: Universities and Public Transportation
By DR. JILL HOUGH, Director, Small Urban & Rural Transit Center, Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND
Thousands of college students and area residents, hundreds of city officials and staff members, and dozens of buses and drivers coming together to save a city have helped redefine the word “community” for me in a way that I will never forget.
By the latter half of March, the Red River in Fargo surpassed flood stage and the spirited community of 100,000 people began preparing to protect the city.
Fargo is the home of North Dakota State University (NDSU), which has a student population of nearly 14,000. As the river receded, it became apparent that it was important to tell everyone about how the students of NDSU (and neighboring campuses: Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia College, Minnesota State Community and Technical College, among other volunteers) helped save the city from flooding and how the Metropolitan Area Transit (MAT) system was a partner in the fight.
Many of you may have seen the pictures and news feeds that inundated the national media and told the story of how the rapidly rising Red River, flowing north into Canada, endangered Fargo and other communities. What you did not see was the unique partnerships within the community that helped hold back the flood waters.
The partnership between North Dakota State University and MAT is not new, but the depth of the relationship grew extremely strong as the NDSU students (along with other community members) rode MAT buses to sites designated by the city where they labored to stave off the waters.
While normal river depth is below 18 feet, the river reached a crest of 40.82 feet on March 28. This inundation could have been catastrophic for the community. However, a well-prepared Mayor Dennis Walaker (manager of city operations during the 1997 flood), a diligent city staff, and thousands of volunteers rescued the city. Even though a national agency recommended evacuation, the people of Fargo stood strong and most stayed in their homes or in the community so they could protect the city. The resolve and effort of the community was unprecedented, and NDSU and MAT played an integral role.
“The city workers, the students, the volunteers, and MAT worked like a well-oiled machine,” said Julie Bommelman, administrator of Metropolitan Area Transit in Fargo. “To begin with, MAT and the university and college campuses have a tremendous partnership with unlimited access for student rides, but the flooding situation solidified a never-seen-before relationship: students and transit fighting to save a community.”
“The college students are very important to the City of Fargo,” added Jim Gilmour, director of Fargo Planning and general manager of MAT. “They worked around the clock to fight the flood. When combining the local colleges and universities, Fargo-Moorhead (MN) has more than 25,000 college students living here. They played an unparalleled role in saving the community.”
Interestingly, the Fargodome, located by the NDSU campus, became known as “Sandbag University,” or simply “Sandbag U.” This facility, host of NDSU Bison home football games and other events, housed mountains of sand, semi trucks, and thousands of people working their hearts out to fill the bags.
Community volunteers in Fargo made 3.5 million sandbags in less than eight days. Working side by side, students and volunteers from every walk of life joined in the common goal of saving the city by filling sandbags and placing them around homes and neighborhoods.
MAT buses, staff, and facilities played a crucial role. Buses that transported sandbaggers were known as the “Sandbag Express.” MAT dedicated seven buses while buses from Valley Bus Company and Red River Trails were also used. Together those buses hauled an estimated 28,800 volunteer sandbaggers as well as numerous sandbags.
Gilmour noted that “using the buses helped cut back on traffic in the flooding areas and allowed the city to close local streets and let necessary equipment in neighborhoods.”
The Fargodome and local churches with large parking lots provided parking space for volunteers where they could board buses and be transported to locations where help was needed.
“It was absolutely stunning to see the thousands of students coming to ride the buses to fight the flood—they were never-ending,” Bommelman said. “They were bused from the Fargodome, the NDSU Memorial Union, and local churches. Hundreds of people waited in line to get on the buses and were deployed around the city for hours; they were wet, cold, and tired, but no one complained. I can’t say enough good things about these students and volunteers who stepped in and met the community need.”
The MAT bus garage, which is a 55,860-square-foot space built in 2007, became known as “Command Central.” The garage housed 120,000 sandbags, six tractor-trailer trucks ready to depart with sandbags to wherever necessary, 26 drivers coming and going, several National Guard members, and up to six police officers at a time during the horrendous week.
MAT was also critical in movement of vulnerable populations. Three nursing homes were evacuated, as was the MeritCare Hospital. Other communities pitched in and offered their buses when evacuations were made.
“Responses from other city transit systems were overwhelming; they offered fuel and anything else to assist MAT in the flood fighting effort,” Bommelman said. First Transit brought in 21 drivers from the Twin Cities to provide relief to drivers who were working around the clock.
Many people around the community helped in the effort. Local news commentators said that, out of 90,000 people, 80,000 volunteered. Many people have said our future looks brighter to them after seeing the students fight so vigorously for the community. The students stepped up to the plate and worked tirelessly to save the community. Some of these are our next generation of transit workers. The university is a great place to recruit the next generation of transit employees.
So many people ask, “Why do you live in Fargo?” The events of the past few weeks speak volumes of why I chose to live in this great community. It is a place where people look after one another (even people they do not know) and a place where citizens care about the greater good.
The city was well-prepared with an emergency plan, which included transit. Emergency plans are imperative but the spirit of this community, in my opinion, is worth replicating. A community with a strong partnership between public transit and the university was the “great enabler” in fighting the 2009 Fargo flood.