2 Bridges Take Toll : Residents Fear More Deaths if Crossings Aren't Made Safe

Three and a half years ago, Donald Fife held his dying 13-year-old son after the boy was hit by a car as he skateboarded over a bridge above the Costa Mesa Freeway.

Donny Fife was not the first or last child to die on the Santa Clara Avenue bridge. The Fifes' newspaper carrier was also killed there as he rode his bike. A neighbor's son, Johnny Scott, was also hit on the bridge and suffered a collapsed lung, crushed hand and internal bleeding. Most of the skin was scraped from his face.

Since his son died, Fife has crusaded for improvements to the Santa Clara bridge, and the Fairhaven Avenue bridge to the north. He has lobbied local, state and federal officials in writing and in person. He has filed a wrongful-death suit against Tustin, Santa Ana, the county and the state. He has pleaded with children to stop playing on the bridges. So far, none of it has worked.

Both Fairhaven Avenue and Santa Clara narrow from four lanes to two as they cross the freeway. Both bridges are steep, with no street lights or warning signs. Each has a sidewalk on one side only. And although school buses stop at the approaches to the bridges every day to pick up waiting children, no signs alert drivers to the bus stops.

"The kids run around there, waiting for the bus during rush hour," Fife said.

Trying to get improvements on the bridges has been a bureaucratic nightmare, Fife said. County officials say the state controls the overpasses. State officials say the cities and county do. The bridges lie at the juncture of three cities, and which of them have responsibility is not clear.

The Santa Clara overpass sits at the juncture of the cities of Tustin and Santa Ana and unincorporated county area, while the Fairhaven overpass is within the jurisdiction of Tustin, Santa Ana, Orange and the county.

Although Ignacio Ochoa, a county traffic engineer, said his office found that law-enforcement records do not show a pattern of accidents, Fife and others who live near the bridges tell a different story.

Elaine Scott, who used to live a few blocks from the Santa Clara bridge, said that when she was told that her son had been hit while riding his bicycle, she knew instantly where it had happened.

"The fellow who hit my son didn't see him until he was right on top of him," Scott said. "The kids can ride their bikes on the walkway, but of course if they get caught, they get a ticket, " Scott said. "So they're damned if they do and dead if they don't."

Fife and more than 800 others presented a petition to the North Tustin Municipal Advisory Council in February asking the five government agencies involved to reduce the 40 m.p.h. speed limit over the bridges and to install street lighting, warning signs, and higher railings or screens along the edge.

Both overpasses are designated as secondary arterial highways, which usually are four lanes. In fact, the Orange County Master Plan of Arterial Highways shows the overpasses as four lanes, but Caltrans has no plans to widen them.

State Sen. John Seymour said it is his understanding that a maintenance agreement approved after Caltrans built the bridges in 1962 gave total control to the local jurisdictions and that it is up to them to install lights, determine speed limits and make other modifications.

Doug Tugwell, project development branch manager for the local Caltrans district, agreed that local jurisdictions carry such responsibility.

But county engineer Ochoa said he is unaware of any existing agreement that gives the county any power or responsibility to make modifications on the bridges. Because the overpasses cross the freeway, they are the state's property and responsibility, he said.

"What I think needs to be done is to have a joint-powers agreement with the state and have the state head an effort to address all these concerns," Ochoa said.

Seymour said his office is trying to expedite improvements by bringing the various agencies together.

"I recall when this tragedy first took place, and I had discussions at that time with Caltrans," Seymour said. "It's unconscionable that it's taken this long to get something done."

Dessa Schroeder, chairwoman of the North Tustin council, said a meeting with all jurisdictions has been scheduled for Monday.

But Fife said he won't be encouraged until he sees results.

"Talk is very inexpensive," he said. "We have children on that bridge every day and there's going to be another death."

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