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Police in Portland risk their lives to stop wrong-way drivers

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Posted at 12:13 PM, Feb 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-23 17:22:17-05

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Hundreds of thousands of people travel the Harbor Bridge every year, all while a major flaw on the bridge poses deadly consequences.

"It's pretty evident that there is a problem down there at the south end of the Harbor Bridge where people are turning up the wrong way on the exits," Portland Police Chief Mark Cory said.

KRIS 6 News began an investigation in November 2022 that revealed encountering wrong-way drivers are not an uncommon occurrence for those traveling the Harbor Bridge, or US-181, between Portland and Corpus Christi.

"I'm sure there's more than what we know about, there's been plenty of wrong-way drivers that we get calls about. We rush down to the causeway and they never show up because they exited somewhere on North Beach," Ronnie Owen, Portland Police Department Lt. said.

KRIS 6 News asked the Texas Department of Transportation for data on crashes on the Harbor Bridge and US-I81 between Harbor Drive and Breakwater Avenue, in which drivers were going the wrong way between 2012 and Nov. 15, 2022.

Between those dates, TxDOT reported one crash, which was fatal.

TxDOT data
The Texas Department of Transportation reports one wrong-way crash between Harbor Drive and Breakwater Avenue.

But, Portland police told us that while they have not kept track of the number of wrong-way drivers they have responded to over the years, it is an average of ten a year.

"The wrong-way driver, which almost all the time is an intoxicated driver, is an immediate threat and we're going to take immediate action to take that vehicle off the roadway," Cory said.

"We can't stress enough this is an immediate danger to the public," he said.

That immediate danger requires an immediate response from officers with the Portland Police Department.

READ MORE: Tips on how to protect yourself from a wrong-way driver on the Harbor Bridge

When there is time, officers attempt to use spike strips to try and disable the vehicle, but in some cases that doesn't work.

Ultimately, officers know to stop the wrong-way driver's car, even if it means using their own squad car as a battering ram, potentially risking their lives.

"It's the same risk that every citizen's having, that I mean that has lost their life. We're looking at losing an officer every time this happens," Owen said. "If it's not an officer, it's very well going to be a citizen."

"Whatever it takes, because I'm not gonna have a drunk driver or a wrong-way driver hit a carload of innocent civilians and kill them like what's occurred on the Harbor Bridge or the causeway," Cory said. "We're going to do everything we can to not allow that to occur in Portland."

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This policy, which is supported by Portland's City Manager, is contrary to the policy of the Corpus Christi Police Department. The CCPD told KRIS 6 News it has a no-chase policy.

"Other agencies don't take that quite of an aggressive attitude," Cory said. "I've heard other departments say they're going to parallel them and try to get (the wrong-way driver's) attention."

Cory said multiple exit ramps at the base of the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi are seen as on-ramps by intoxicated drivers, but that it is outside Portland's jurisdiction. and

He added they have not made any requests or recommendations to TxDOT asking for changes be made to these ramps.

"I would hope that the City of Corpus and the Corpus Police Department would be dealing with TxDOT to get those things corrected," Cory said.

And while policies for police departments typically discourage the use of squad cars to disable other vehicles, Cory and Owen said the need to save lives in these extreme circumstances of wrong-way drivers, allows for those typical policies to be disregarded.

"Our chief supports us, our city management supports us, the city council supports us, and most importantly, the citizens of Portland support us. And they expect us to go out and prevent these things from happening," Owen said.

Given the risk to officers and residents, Portland city staff and police want a solution from TxDOT.
"We would like to see an engineering solution to the wrong-way drivers. We would like to see TxDOT take action, appropriate action, that will prevent these wrong-way drivers," Portland City Manager Randy Wright said.

The sentiment was echoed by Portland Police, who ask that TxDOT close the ramps that have led to these wrong-way crashes.

KRIS 6 News asked TxDOT a series of questions about safety related to these exit ramps, any ongoing plans to make these exits safer, and any action taken by TxDOT following fatalities in 2015, 2020, and 2022. We also requested an interview with TxDOT executive director Marc Williams.

TxDOT has not responded to any of the questions posed by KRIS 6 News, or our request for an interview with Williams, by the deadline given.

Until changes are made, the Portland Police Department said it will continue to use any tactic in its arsenal to stop any wrong-way driver and protect its citizens — hopefully preventing tragic accidents similar to those Owen has responded to.

Owen described responding to one incident in which a wrong-way driver killed a woman and a man three years ago. The woman died on impact and the man burned as emergency crews were unable to rescue him, as the vehicle burned.

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"The car had already caught fire, and unfortunately is one of those times where (it) kind of messes with you. In fact, in the moment you're there to do a job, but we watched them burn, I mean, there was nothing we could do," he said. "We can't prevent them all, but we can prevent a lot of what's occurred over the last few years."

Owen said he plans to keep data on all wrong-way drivers the Portland Police Department responds to who have entered the Harbor Bridge through an exit ramp moving forward.

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.

To report issues or any complaints with roadways managed by the Texas Department of Transportation, click here.

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