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KRIS 6 News pushes for solutions to wrong-way drivers on Harbor Bridge

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Posted at 4:01 PM, Feb 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-24 10:15:23-05

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Portland police sprang into action Friday, ready to stop a wrong-way driver on the Harbor Bridge.

In the last seven years, at least five people have died from wrong-way accidents on that bridge.

And Portland Police Chief Mark Cory said officers will do anything to take these drivers off the road.

"You know something has to get done because this situation — not only does it put the citizens in danger, it continuously puts our officers in danger," he said.

Last week, a trooper with the Department of Public Safety stopped the latest wrong-way driver, with an assist from the Portland Police Department. Portland was notified by dispatchers from Corpus Christi's MetroCom unit after two 911 calls from drivers on the roadway.

The wrong-way driver made it from the Harbor Bridge onto the Nueces Bay Causeway before being stopped. Two independent, credible sources told 6 Investigates that this driver "was sober." One incident report states the driver performed poorly on a field sobriety test.

Some say it's just another example of a wrong-way driver that could have taken a life, even after new flashing wrong-way signage was put up on Feb. 14, the day before KRIS 6 New'sfirst special report aired.

"It could be any one of us," Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo said.

Guajardo had attended the 30th annual Stage Door Canteen, a fundraiser at the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay.

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Sarah Banta and Paulette Guajardo attend the 30th annual Stage Door Canteen at the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay.

Earlier that night, the executive director of the Lexington and his wife narrowly avoided a collision with that wrong-way driver. In an exclusive interview with KRIS 6 News anchor Pat Simon, they credit their Uber driver for potentially avoiding a serious accident.

"We may have been leaving the event around the same time and that is very scary, I didn't even know that," Guajardo said, when she learned of the wrong-way incident. "I was driving, you know, the same roadways. So yes, it's very, very personal and it makes me really believe even more so that we absolutely need to move forward together in improving these things such as the, you know, LED lights that are now there."

Guajardo referenced LED lights installed by the Texas Department of Transportation as part of a new wrong-way detection system. The system is not fully installed, but some law enforcement officials said regardless, it won't work.

"Having a flashing sign that says 'you are going the wrong direction,' it might help with a sober person who just made a wrong turn. That might help them, but all the DWI and the intoxicated drivers that we are dealing with. I don't see how that's going to have an impact," Cory said.

Following the special investigative report, KRIS 6 News pledged to get answers and solutions from public officials.

WATCH PART 1 OF 'FACING DANGER' HERE

And while several of the public officials we spoke with following the special said they support the TxDOT's wrong-way detection system, they also said more needs to be done.

"I can't speak for TxDOT, but the fact that they put the lights up? Great. Are they helping? Some may say yes. Some may say no. Be what it may. We need to find a better solution. Absolutely," Guajardo said.

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The Texas Department of Transportation is in the process of installing a wrong-way detection system on exit ramps at the Harbor Bridge.

City Manager Peter Zanoni said the Harbor Bridge and exit ramps, are the responsibility of TxDOT, but that the city is working in partnership to come up with solutions for wrong-way drivers.

He said the city began meeting with TxDOT in early December, following the deaths of 37-year-old Betsy Mandujano and 27-year-old Matthew Banda in November.

Guajardo said in addition to discussions with TxDOT the city is working with its engineers to develop solutions.

KRIS 6 News has been trying to find out what solutions TxDOT has, but have received little response.

On Feb. 1, KRIS 6 News' assistant news director asked TxDOT Public Information Officer Rickey Dailey for an update on the wrong-way detection system. We heard back on February 23.

On Feb. 10, 6 Investigates sent a list of questions to TxDOT about the fatalities on the Harbor Bridge caused by wrong-way drivers dating back to 2015 and any proposed fixes by TxDOT.

TxDOT did not respond to our questions by the time part one aired on Feb. 15. On Wednesday, TxDOT answered. But, rather than answering the questions provided, the state agency provided a statement and said all questions were addressed.

Leadership with the City of Corpus Christi spoke to KRIS 6 News and said that street closures are possible, with the city helping to mitigate any impact on businesses.

City engineers have completed a study, examining the roads that lead to exits that drivers have used to enter the Harbor Bridge and travel the wrong way up Southbound lanes.

That report, at least on Power Street revealed the street has very little traffic, and closing it would potentially impact two businesses, Zanoni said.

Zanoni added the city should have a plan in place in the next three months.

Guajardo said that any decision to close a street, thereby forcing a closure of an off-ramp, wouldn't be made in a vacuum.

"We work in partnership with TxDOT, and our lawmakers in this case, and so we're going to continue to do that," she said. "This is not a situation where one entity is going to basically call the shots and say okay we've done it, it's done. This is a conversation that will continue to happen until we all agree that it's been resolved."

"The conversation will continue until we do have a resolution," Guajardo added. "We cannot keep losing lives, you know whether it's— whether it involves alcohol, or not, we cannot keep losing lives."

State senator Juan Chuy Hinojosa said that while safe driving is the responsibility of all drivers, TxDOT should also use every tool available to implement solutions to help prevent wrong-way crashes.

“While ultimately safe driving is the responsibility of all drivers, TxDOT should also use every tool available to them to implement solutions to help prevent wrong way crashes. TxDOT has already taken action by improving signage at these ramps, is installing a wrong way driver notification system that is expected to be completed by May, and is evaluating and communicating with local governmental entities about additional improvements.” -Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa

KRIS 6 News anchor Pat Simon has reached out to State Representative Terry Canales, who is also the chairman of the state's house transportation committee. Canales said he would work with our state delegation to find solutions to save lives.

Those solutions Cory said need to happen for both residents and his officers.

"I've been chief here for eight years and this has been going on since the day I got here, and well before, so nothing had really been, (or) has been done during that time frame by TxDOT, anybody that could make the changes on that end," Cory said. "I don't know, hopefully, this last double fatality will get the ball rolling, or it seems to slowly get things done. But, you know, this has been going on for eight years and I've been the chief here and nothing slowed down yet."

Safety is and always has been the number one priority at TxDOT. In an effort to prevent wrong-way drivers from entering the Harbor Bridge exit ramps, TxDOT installed new signs with reflective posts and reflective striping at four intersections around the south interchange of the Harbor Bridge in 2020. Additionally, reflective delineators, raised pavement markings, reflective pavement striping, and new wrong-way flashing signs were installed.

TxDOT is also installing wrong-way driver systems at four intersections (Power Street, Padre Street, Upper Broadway Boulevard, and Twigg Street) around the south interchange of the Harbor Bridge and expect that work to be complete by May 2023. Wrong-way driver detection systems alert drivers that they are entering a roadway in the wrong direction, so that they can self-correct before causing a collision. If they do not self-correct, then the system can notify a central traffic management center and law enforcement.

TxDOT and the city of Corpus Christi are working together to identify other potential safety improvements.

Police reports for the September 2015 and November 2022 incidents indicate that the wrong-way driver traveled west along Mesquite Street, turned north and entered at Twigg Street, not at the locations referenced by KRIS-6.

Editor’s note: The police report provided in reference to the 2015 fatality states a forensic scientist photographed two exits. Using details from the report and archive video from the accident scene, KRIS 6 News determined the exit most likely used by the wrong-way driver. If TxDOT has access to a report that provides a definitive access point, we welcome this report. The November 2022 incident report does not give a location in which the driver entered the Harbor Bridge. However, a civil lawsuit filed, stated this driver entered the bridge at Power Street. If TxDOT has any official document to dispute this, we welcome this report.

TxDOT also reviewed the crash report for the February 2020 incident and could not confirm the entrance of the wrong-way driver for that incident. In all these instances, the drivers were under the influence of alcohol.

Editor’s note: The only driver convicted of intoxication manslaughter is the driver from the 2015 crash. All other drivers were not litigated, or are in the process of being litigated. The crash report from 2020 reveals the driver died in that accident. And the driver from November 2022 has been arrested and is currently awaiting trial.

Although only one intersection has been confirmed as a wrong-way entry point, TxDOT has and continues to enhance safety features at all four intersections in this area to mitigate potential wrong-way drivers.

While we can implement all the engineering enhancements possible to build safer roads, at the end of the day, drivers hold the key to driving safely. We continuously encourage drivers to make smart choices when behind the wheel, including never drinking and driving, paying attention, driving to conditions and always wearing their seatbelt. As our media partner, we hope KRIS-6 will help us spread these important reminders as we work to end the streak of daily deaths on our roadways. Please see #EndTheStreakTX (txdot.gov) for more information.

TxDOT

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