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Why was TxDOT's decision to close exit ramps so late?

KRIS 6 requests public records of TxDOT emails about Harbor Bridge wrong-way crashes
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Posted at 9:37 PM, May 15, 2023

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Three months after KRIS 6 News asked the Texas Department of Transportation what had been done to prevent wrong-way drivers from accessing the Harbor Bridge, 6 Investigates has obtained emails and documents that reveal how the state agency addressed fatal accidents.

“Why did it take so long,” Judy Butler asked.

A resident of Corpus Christi, Butler's email asking for wrong-way drivers to be addressed is just one of many that shine light on the approach by TxDOT since 2015.

KRIS 6 News began investigating these crashes following the fatal wrong way crash on the bridge in November that left two people dead.

That investigation revealed at least eight people have died in the last seven years in crashes involving drivers entering the Harbor Bridge via exit ramps.

March 1, KRIS 6 News anchor Pat Simon asked Governor Greg Abbott if he had seen TxDOT's plans to address these accidents. Abbott said the plans were "inadequate" and called for TxDOT and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to search for real solutions.

Some solutions include the permanent closure of some southbound exits off the Harbor Bridge.

With solutions in place, 6 Investigates began looking into what TxDOT had done over the last seven years, following any of these fatal accidents.

In February, the investigative team sent TxDOT several questions, specifically asking what it had done following the Sept. 2015 crash that killed Julie Gatheral. Her sister, Susan Hardinger, has been vocal in the need to close exits.

TxDOT didn't respond to that specific question, or others, rather they responded with a statement in late February.

On the same day 6 Investigates sent TxDOT questions, it also filed a Texas Public Information Request asking for public records related to wrong-way crashes on the Harbor Bridge and US Highway 181.

A portion of the documents requested were released, and KRIS 6 News found that on numerous occasions, there was no communication following a fatal accident, or the public agency responded with actions such as new "Do Not Enter" or "Wrong Way" signs, road reflectors, or blinking signs.

Documents also reveal a plan to install wrong-way detection systems, in April 2021.

Timeline of TxDOT response to wrong-way drivers:

On September 22, 2015 at about 7 p.m., Julie Gatheral was driving southbound over the Harbor Bridge. She was on the way to pick up her husband, Ian, who just got off of work. Gatheral’s Nissan X-Terra was hit head-on by a truck driven by an intoxicated Lionel Guerra. He entered the Harbor Bridge on an exit in the wrong direction.

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Gatheral was killed in that crash.

In October 2015, just days after the September death of Gatheral, one TxDOT email acknowledged that deadly crash.

It also addressed an additional wrong-way driver crash where a driver swerved to avoid a head-on collision and struck a wall. The TxDOT email further reads, “several other head-on collisions nearly happened.”

In response to this fatal crash, TxDOT added flashing beacons to wrong-way signs at bridge exits.

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KRIS 6 revealed statistics showing eight people have died from wrong-way crashes on the Harbor Bridge that happened since 2015.

That includes the March 29, 2017 crash that killed 25-year old Taylor Counts and 33-year-old Camilo Espitia, Jr. on the Nueces Bay Causeway (after crossing the bridge).

On June 3, 2019, Corpus Christi resident Judy Butler sent an email to Mayor Paulette Guajardo, who was an at-large city council representative at the time. That email claiming Butler had witnesses the result of numerous wrong-way driver collisions on the Harbor Bridge, including one the day before the email was written.

“I was the first one on the scene, and it was frightening," Butler said. “There's nothing like standing on top of the bridge and feeling as helpless as you can possibly imagine.”

Butler's email to Guajardo said that the crash should be a wake-up call to the city and state.

“I thought 'why are we in this situation?' It just seemed ridiculous,” Butler said.

In the email exchange, Guajardo responded, saying that she agreed with Butler’s email and would get with the city manager on the issue. Guajardo also forwarded Butler's concern - that eventually got to TxDOT.

Almost six weeks later, records show TxDOT said it conducted a field review and proposed recommendations July 12, 2019.

TxDOT recommended replacing existing "do not enter" and "wrong way" signs, refreshing striping and road reflectors, and other measures. There was no discussion of closing the exits off the Harbor Bridge.

Judy Butler said she wanted real solutions, and was disappointed with the results.

“I just felt like it fell on deaf ears. And it did because nothing really, nothing happened,” Butler said.

On February 15, 2020 at 2:05 am, another fatal wrong-way crash occurred on the Harbor Bridge.

This time, an intoxicated driver entered the bridge using the Power Street exit traveling in the wrong direction.

45-year-old Ricardo Zuniga III died after causing a head-on crash with 38-year-old Amy Hinojosa, killing the Gregory native and mother of three teens.

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Amy Hinojosa

Four days later, on February 19, 2020, public records we requested show a TxDOT email asking someone from traffic engineering to gather information about another Harbor Bridge wrong-way driver crash.

The email asked "What countermeasures or improvements have been made? and “Are there any future improvements … like striping … sign size upgrades?"

A TxDOT power point presentation was sent out a few days later on February 25, 2020.

Our 6-I team noticed these proposals are essentially the same plans from July 12, 2019. Some work was completed. Other work was pending.

Public records also obtained by KRIS 6 show in early April 2020, additional TxDOT bridge enhancement issues were addressed with the City of Corpus Christi.

In June 2020, a TxDOT email confirmed all of the enhancements assigned to them were finally completed and signed off

The result were more of the same: replace ramp signs and striping, and add more "do not enter" and "wrong way signs" and street reflectors, among other measures.

Once again, according to these public records, there was not one suggestion or proposal to permanently shut down the Power Street exit or other problem Harbor Bridge exits.

Also, records show it wasn't until July 2020 that it was first mentioned about the need to install a wrong-way detection system at each exit.

Meanwhile, the deadly wrong-way crashes kept happening.

On July 8th, 2021, police records show 33-year-old Kristen Mang was intoxicated when she drove the wrong way onto the Harbor Bridge and crashed into an oncoming truck.

According to the records we received, TxDOT took no new action after that crash.

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Betsy Mandujano (left)

Then, 16 months later, on November 2, 2022, there was yet another deadly crash on the Harbor Bridge due to a wrong-way driver.

Navy veteran Mathew Banda and Betsy Mandujano, a San Patricio county communications operator, were killed in a head-on crash.

Roxanne Palacios now faces two counts of intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle in connection with that crash.

One month after that latest crash, email records KRIS 6 News obtained show the city of Corpus Christi asked TxDOT for a meeting to discuss the latest on the wrong-way detection system as part of existing safety improvements.

They mentioned two possible dates for the meeting: December 9 or December 13, 2022.

No details were publicly shared following that meeting.

However, one week later, records show that on December 12, 2022, a TxDOT email outlined a PowerPoint presentation called “The Safety Mission: Zero Wrong Way Driver Projects Corpus Christi District."

The plan looked at placing wrong-way detection systems at the four wrong-way exits (Power Street, Padre Street, Twigg Street, and Upper Broadway).

The project was supposed to start on April 2021 at a cost of $269,000 ($50,000 per system, not including installation). It stated a completion date of May 2023.

As of now, only one detection system was installed (Power Street), but it's not operational because of a delay on parts to come in.

In addition, since that exit at Power Street was closed by the end of April 2023, we question how this system would work as illustrated.

Road sensors would need to be installed.

A closed exit ramp prohibits such an installation as shown in the diagrams in the email.

The last TxDOT emails we received by public records request, begin in February 2023, three months after the latest deadly Harbor Bridge wrong way crash.

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The Texas Department of Transportation is installing a wrong-way detection system on the Harbor Bridge.

On February 1, 2023, an email from TxDOT gave an update about delivering wrong-way signs on that day. It states that an update is expected on February 2nd about the wrong-way systems, it also mentions adding LED “blinker signs.”

A TxDOT email from February 9, 2023 notes that blinker signs should be installed on Tuesday, February 14.

KRIS 6 only found out about this project by driving by it the next day (February 15), the day we aired our first in a series of special "Facing Danger" reports.

A TxDOT email came out on February 17, 2023, handing now Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette Guajardo talking points about the November 2, 2022 wrong way fatality on the bridge.

The talking points also note that further coordination was needed between the city and TxDOT on bridge safety and that LED lights would be installed.

It notes that it would be months before wrong wrong-way detection systems could be installed

For the latest local news updates click here, or download the KRIS 6 News App.

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