Crosswalk plea from veteran's widow gains steam

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Washington, DC, September 15, 2016 | comments

Sun Sentinel

Crosswalk plea from veteran's widow gains steam

Widow presses for crosswalk at site of husband's death

Brittany Wallman
Sun Sentinel

It's just one six-lane roadway, just one crusade to help veterans cross the street to the clinic, and it has support from City Halls to the halls of Congress.

It's a cause that gained the voice of a widow after a 70-year-old Army veteran, Willie Span, was struck and killed there two years ago.

But the effort to get the Commercial Boulevard crosswalk is a study in government red tape, a "cluster to the 10th magnitude," as one elected official, Cooper City's Lisa Mallozzi, called it.

Thursday, the crosswalk quest will get new attention, when Span's widow, Doris, addresses the Broward County Commission. She's got the backing of the local congressional delegation, among others.

Five U.S. representatives from South Florida — Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Alcee Hastings and Ted Deutch — signed a letter to the county after Span's death, asking that a pedestrian traffic signal and crosswalk be installed in the 9800 block of Commercial Boulevard. Veterans cross the busy roadway mid-block, to reach the William "Bill" Kling VA Clinic on the south side.

That might not be enough. The county says there aren't enough pedestrians to warrant a signal and crosswalk.

Standing at the accident scene this week, Doris Span wore a T-shirt printed with photos of her late husband. "Don't forget Willie," it implored.

Willie Span, 70, took the Broward County Transit route 55 bus on Oct. 2, 2014, after 6 a.m. He rode about a mile, got off and started for the clinic across the street. A 36-year-old woman driving an Acura hit him before he got halfway across Commercial. The sun hadn't come up yet, and she didn't see him, police said.

Span had a volunteer post to report to at the veterans' clinic in Miami, under a program for veterans with mental or physical disabilities. He intended to catch a shuttle there from the Broward clinic.

He'd enlisted in the Army in 1963 at the age of 18 and served six years, stationed in Germany during the Vietnam era.

Back in the States, he became addicted to drugs, and homeless. Doris Span had a history of drugs, as well, but when they met in 2003, they were both clean and remained so.

A Christian, she insisted they marry rather than living together unwed. They married in 2006, on her 51st birthday. And in 2014, three months before the accident, they bought a house.

"This was like the end of our fairy tale," she said, explaining her anguish afterward. "He had come from homelessness to homeowner. How could it be cut short in three months?"

When the deputy came to her home that morning, she didn't put it together. She thought he was welcoming her to the neighborhood.

"He shuffled his feet a little," she remembered. "He said, 'Is your husband Willie?' I said, 'Stop. Don't say anything. Just don't say it.'"

She'd seen reports about the accident on TV news and had called him, leaving a message: "I saw there was a fatal accident the way you go. Did you see it? Love you. Bye."

Span couldn't talk about the accident until recently. She struggled with a breakdown and was hospitalized twice. As she watched others advocate for a crosswalk, she wished she could speak up, too. But the pain and guilt were paralyzing, she said.

"I was disappointed in myself and I felt he was disappointed in me because I was silent. I wasn't doing anything," she said.

Now she said she's speaking out and is planning a memorial, "for me, to have joy about how my husband lived."

Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said she met Doris Span in August at a Broward Veterans Coalition meeting.

"I want to do everything we can to provide our veterans the health care, safety and security they deserve — including creating this crosswalk, which will help South Florida's veterans access the clinic in a safe manner," she said Monday in a written statement.

Deutch said in a written statement that it's "inconceivable'' that "after risking their lives for our country ... veterans are then expected to risk their lives crossing a busy road just to access the health care and mental health services that they deserve.''

He said he'll continue working to support installation of a signal near the clinic, "particularly after the tragic loss of Mr. Span.''

The county is officially opposed, a position reiterated this week by Public Works Director Tom Hutka.

"A crosswalk cannot and should not be installed at this location because it would violate federal standards, state law and county law," he said in an email. "More importantly, a crosswalk at the proposed location would create a less safe condition for both motorists and pedestrians."

He added that the section of roadway is owned by the cities of Sunrise and Tamarac, situated on either sides. The county handles its signage and markings under a contract. Hutka said the cities could, if they wanted, take that part of the road back and "be responsible for design and construction of any traffic measures."

According to federal guidelines, in order to justify a crosswalk or signal, 75 pedestrians must cross in a four-hour period, or 93 in the peak hour. But a January 2014 count found only five people crossing in a four-hour period and 14 at peak hour, according to the county.

Hutka said the crossing is safer now, because the mid-block bus stop was eliminated after Span's death.

Veterans on the county bus now are carried past the clinic, to Nob Hill Road. They cross at Commercial at the Nob Hill intersection, then traverse a sidewalk the county improved and made accessible to people with disabilities. New pedestrian-warning signs were erected near the site where Span crossed mid-block.

At the transportation planning Broward Metropolitan Organization, leaders from several cities asked last week what could be done. They've grappled with it for years.

"This is something that is near and dear to all of us because of his service," said Tamarac Commissioner Debra Placko.

"I don't care if we need to have a meeting or if we need to browbeat people, but we need to get this done," said Mallozzi, the wife of a military veteran.

Span's memorial will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 1 at Daybreak Assembly church in Tamarac. The following morning, an all-day vigil will start at 6 a.m. at the accident scene, west of 94th Avenue.

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