Residents call for safety on Loop 463
A 9-by-12-foot blue tarp blowing across a one-lane highway on a humid September night led to the death of one Victoria man.
The family of Jonathon Stithem, the 21-year-old who died in a head-on collision, believes his death could have been prevented if he'd had more wiggle room to avoid the tarp while traveling on the Guadalupe river bridge on Loop 463.
But Stithem moved his black Mazda to the right to avoid the tarp and hit the bridge's rail. The impact sent him careening into oncoming traffic, injuring three other people, said Trooper Gerald Bryant of the Department of Public Safety.
The night of Sept. 16 should have been like any other, said Stithem's sister, Kristi.
"He had friends in Goliad that he would go visit weekly. He hung out with them, had dinner and was coming back into town," she said. "It makes me not very happy that is was something as simple as a tarp."
She thinks the bridge should be widened to two lanes on each side.
Last week, the Texas Department of Transportation installed traffic buttons and raised pavement markers in that area for $10,300. The project was planned before Stithem wrecked, said department spokeswoman Helena Wright.
"This increased the visibility of the center line," Wright said. "It will also serve as a rumble strip."
While builders predicted 15 years ago that the estimated 3.5-mile stretch of roadway, which turns into U.S. 77, would one day need two lanes on each side, there is not any funding for that, said Paul Frerich, TxDOT's Yoakum district engineer.
If TxDOT were to widen the Guadalupe River bridge, it would determine the bridge's structural integrity. Some options for widening the bridge include building another bridge alongside the existing one or knocking the existing one down and starting from scratch.
"The cost of providing a four-lane divided roadway between FM 1685 and U.S. 87 would be in the neighborhood of $25 million," he said.
Residents can suggest safety improvements to TxDOT or attend a Victoria Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, which is at 700 Main St., Room 204, usually on the second Tuesday of every month. The next meeting may be in December, however, because there is nothing on the agenda, Frerich said.
"The first thing we always look at is safety, and that is something we continue to look at on every roadway whether there's accidents there or not," he said.
The Victoria Metropolitan Planning Organization, one of the smallest in the state, received $180,000 from the Federal Highway Administration to come up with plans, said Mary Craighead, the organization's coordinator.
One plan, constructing overpasses on Loop 463 near Victoria East High School, has come to fruition.
Daylon Magnia, 64, of Victoria, said the lack of room near the Guadalupe River bridge was best illustrated for him a year ago when an escort service for a truck hauling concrete beams took up two lanes of traffic.
"I had to take evasive action to miss him," he said.
Magnia stopped by the business the service had just left from to complain, but employees could not offer any answers.
A retiree living in Northwest Victoria County, Magnia knows what life without Loop 463 looked like.
"We'd drive 13 miles to Wal-Mart. Now, it's 6 miles to Wal-Mart," he said.
For him, the solution is installing concrete barriers down the middle, although he thinks money from Eagle Ford Shale businesses could cover widening the bridge.
"They didn't look far enough ahead. You have no escape route. If someone crosses into your lane, you've just got to live with it," he said.
Magnia also wouldn't be opposed to slowing down; some drivers already go 35 or 40 mph. They pose just as much of a threat as the speeders, he said.
Speeding is one of the factors troopers cite most on the reports of the 64 wrecks that occurred on Loop 463 between Farm-to-Market 1685 and U.S. Highway 87 from 2008 to Oct. 1.
And going into the wrong lane or taking faulty evasive action were the reasons behind all three fatal accidents that occurred there during that same time period, the data shows.
On April 25, Daniel Blue House, 32, also of Victoria, died after he ran into the left side of an oncoming Jeep Cherokee while on a motorcycle traveling north on U.S. 77, Bryant said.
"It wasn't on a curve or anything else," Bryant said. "One of the things that may or may not have contributed to the crash - and we're pending blood results" is that alcohol was a factor.
"Three (fatal) wrecks in this time period is not any worse than anywhere else in the county. ... That's a very busy road," Bryant added.
There have been 864 wrecks on the entire Loop 463 since 2008. Of those, 11 were fatal.
Kristi Stithem thinks the improvements TxDOT's made already is "a start."
"We (the Stithem family) are just taking it one day at a time. That's all we can do," she said.