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Crusader Wins Battle for Bridge Safety : Streets: Tustin man began a struggle to eliminate span's traffic hazards after his son died in an accident there 8 years ago.

March 28, 1994|BERT ELJERA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUSTIN — After years of battling transportation planners at all levels of government, years that some believe saw unnecessary carnage on the locally infamous Santa Clara bridge, it appears that Don Fife finally may get his wish.

The bridge is scheduled to be revamped next year, as part of the $29-million widening of the Costa Mesa freeway. The unlighted bridge, which residents here say is narrow and has a too-high speed limit, should be safer after the new configuration, said John Garcia, a project manager with the Orange County Transportation Authority.

"It will be an improved crossing when we get done with it," Garcia said.

But for Fife, the improvements will come too late. His son, Donny, died in his arms eight years ago, after the 13-year-old boy was hit by a car while trying to retrieve a skateboard.

His death launched Fife on a quest to improve the bridge, through an unsuccessful lawsuit that drained his life savings.

He is skeptical about the improvements. He said he has heard similar promises before. But if, indeed, the bridge is improved, his years of lobbying state, county and local officials won't have been wasted.

"It's been frustrating, but not completely fruitless," said Fife, 56, a geologist who lives near the bridge in Tustin. "More accidents may have been prevented because people, especially parents, are now more aware of the hazards here."

Meanwhile, accidents keep happening. In late January, Fife was among the first on the scene when a Santa Ana teen-ager was hit by a car while walking with friends on the bridge. The 14-year-old boy was carried on the hood of the car about 100 feet, but survived the accident.

Fife said that as the boy screamed in pain as paramedics attended to him, it was like watching his son Donny die all over again.

Area law enforcement agencies insist that there is no pattern to the accidents on the bridge or near its approaches. In Donny Fife's death, a jury ruled two years ago that the boy was at fault in the accident.

The Santa Clara bridge, built in 1961, sits at the juncture of Tustin, Santa Ana and an unincorporated county area. The Tustin and Santa Ana police and the California Highway Patrol answer calls in the area.

Tustin City Atty. James G. Rourke said that between 1979 and 1988, Tustin police recorded six accidents on the Tustin side of the bridge. None ended in deaths, he said.

Ruth Smith, an associate transportation engineer for the city of Santa Ana, said that the January accident is the only one in the past seven years on the west end of the bridge, which is under Santa Ana's jurisdiction.

Keith Thornhill of the CHP traffic investigation unit said there have been no reports of accidents in the county jurisdiction over the past two years. The CHP patrols the westbound lanes of Santa Clara Avenue, up to several hundred feet before the bridge, he said.

But Fife claims that since 1975, there have been at least 19 traffic accidents on or near the bridge, four of them resulting in deaths. He said he based his figures on available traffic accident reports and interviews with residents and accident victims.

Critics complain that the street narrows from four lanes on each side to two lanes over the bridge, and that the bridge itself arches, blinding drivers to oncoming traffic.

John Scott, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy whose son was hit by a car while riding his bike on the bridge 10 years ago, said: "You can't see from the other side until you hit the crest of the bridge."

Scott's son, Johnny, then 14, suffered a collapsed lung, a crunched hand and other injuries, but survived, after spending two weeks in a hospital, Scott said.

"The speed limit should be a lot slower," Scott said. "If you're going 40 (m.p.h.), there's no time to avoid an accident."

In 1990, about 800 North Tustin residents signed a petition requesting state, county and Tustin city officials to reduce the speed limit to 35 m.p.h. Nothing was done, Fife said.

Dave King, who has lived in the area since 1979, said motorists using the bridge as an alternative to the more congested 17th Street to the south sometimes travel at speeds of 60 m.p.h. on residential streets.

"I'd rather have that bridge closed, if I have my way," King said.

Lt. Bob Schoenkopf of the Tustin police said the current speed limit is based on surveys of actual traffic flow in the area.

"It was not arbitrary or a guess," he said.

Project manager Garcia said next year's construction will expand the approaches to the bridge 36 feet to 52 feet. Also, a sidewalk on one side of the bridge will be widened, street lights will be installed, and the bridge design will be improved so that drivers will be able to see oncoming traffic from farther away.

The work will be funded with money from Measure M, the half-cent sales tax approved by Orange County voters in 1990 to improve local transportation.

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