Robert Melendez is more than a statistic, but his death highlights a vicious 18-year streak of daily Texas tragedies, one that leaders hope to bring to a screeching halt.
Melendez, 78, died Thursday morning from injuries he suffered after being struck by a car while walking across Park Lake Drive at North 19th Street, an intersection police said is known to be hazardous.
At least one person has died on a Texas roadway every day for the past 18 years, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT launched a campaign last month dubbed #EndTheStreakTX in hopes of raising awareness and breaking the streak. The leading causes of traffic fatalities include failure to maintain a lane, drunken driving and excessive speed, according to TxDOT. In the eight-county Waco District last year, leading causes of traffic fatalities mirrored the leading statewide causes, TxDOT spokesman Ken Roberts said.
There have been 33 traffic fatalities in McLennan County this year, including nine on Interstate 35 and three on Highway 84, according to TxDOT’s Crash Records Information System.
Eight of the fatalities in the county involved drunken driving, eight involved a pedestrian, six were attributed to distracted driving, one involved a motorcycle and one was attributed to cellphone use, according to the system.
Pedestrian deaths in the county were down from 14 last year.
Since 2010, 332 people have died on McLennan County roads.
While the numbers are staggering, Melendez is worth remembering as more than just another statistic, his friend, Barbara Elaine, said. Melendez was a pillar of their church, House of the Lord People Church, Elaine said.
“He was so generous and loving,” she said. “When Robert prayed, we listened. His spirit seemed directly connected to God.”
Melendez was the second pedestrian hit by a vehicle and killed in the area of Park Lake and 19th Street this year.
Sherry Lynn Wood, 63, of Waco, was killed March 6 on North 19th Street near the same intersection when a car struck her wheelchair.
City of Waco officials applied for a TxDOT grant this summer to improve the intersection but did not win the grant.
Elaine said Melendez joined their church about six years ago after passing by the location and deciding to stop and see what it was all about. He became an elder of the church, playing a role in its decision making, she said.
“When you read something like, ‘Robert Melendez got struck by a car on 19th Street,’ you don’t realize all the lives that went behind him and all the lives he touched,” she said. “I’m sure he was walking to do something for someone else. That’s the type of person he was.”
TxDOT’s campaign is aimed at reminding drivers it is a shared responsibility among roadway users and engineers to keep roads safe. TxDOT officials are asking people to share personal stories of loved ones lost in car crashes on their social media pages using photo and video testimonials with the hashtag #EndTheStreakTX.
TxDOT continues to remind drivers to make sure all passengers are wearing a seat belt, to pay attention and put away cellphones, to never drink and drive, and to always follow the speed limit and drive slower when conditions warrant.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that every day for the past 18 years someone has lost a spouse, child, friend or neighbor on our state’s roadways,” TxDOT Executive Director James Bass wrote in a statement on the agency’s website. “Ending this deadly daily streak is a shared responsibility.
“We will continue to engineer our roads to be more forgiving of drivers’ errors, but we all must work toward ending such preventable contributing factors as distracted driving, speeding and drunk driving. Let’s make it a priority to be safe, focused and responsible behind the wheel. Let’s end the streak.”
Some fatalities in the county this year include:
Waco will end the year having welcomed an estimated 2.7 million tourists to town, and dozens were standing in the 37-degree chill late Saturday afternoon waiting to enter Silos Bakery Co. at Magnolia Market.
While struggling to stay warm, these visitors from Columbus, Ohio; Orlando, Florida; and Little Rock, Arkansas, to name a few hometowns, would have noticed a Waco Transit bus making special laps through downtown, and a Waco Tours van.
Nearby, a family of five, including a toddler in a stroller, poured from the Dr Pepper Museum, maybe having feasted on Waco history and ice cream floats.
It was a good day in the neighborhood, the gray skies, cold and post-holiday dearth of special events notwithstanding. Welcome but increasingly typical.
“We’re now seeing demand for 300,000 maps a year and for 200,000 visitor guides, up from 50,000 probably four years ago,” said Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the Magnolia effect, but it’s not just about Magnolia. It’s about the community as a whole. Increased tourism has an impact on all attractions.”
A rundown of statistics provided by Pendergraft shows attendance at Cameron Park Zoo is running 8 percent ahead of last year; the Mayborn Museum and its Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village, 17 percent ahead; the Waco Mammoth National Monument, 13 percent; the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, 7 percent; and the Lake Waco Wetlands, 8 percent.
Cameron Park Zoo is the city’s second-biggest tourist draw, behind only Magnolia Market, attracting 353,691 visitors this year. The Mayborn Museum comes in third with 184,437 visitors, and Waco Mammoth National Monument rounds out the top-four with 113,342 visitors this year.
The Tourist Information Center saw a 94 percent increase year-over-year, which sounds great but comes after a change in the method for counting visitors.
“It was due to the installation of an infrared sensor which counts visitors as they come through the door,” Pendergraft said. “Prior to that, we counted only those who agreed to sign in our log book.”
All told, attendance at attractions that had agreed to share their totals with Pendergraft by late Friday afternoon totaled 2,692,400, a 6 percent increase from the 2,545,261 who trekked to Greater Waco in 2017.
“Although the increase year over year is only 6 percent, it shows that Waco’s tourism is still growing, on top of stellar growth over the last several years,” Pendergraft said in an email message to the Tribune-Herald. “Remember that four years ago, our attraction attendance was about 650,000. So it has now quadrupled to 2.7 million.”
Hard figures from Magnolia Market were not available, but Pendergraft and others involved in promoting conventions and tourism, as well as Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, have estimated its draw at 30,000 to 35,000 weekly.
Those estimates are included in the 2.7 million total.
Chris Dyer, president and CEO of the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute, said the attraction “is right around 150,000 visitors for the current year through the end of December.”
This year’s visitor count is up 6 percent from 141,000 total visitors last year, Dyer said.
“Spring break, summer and the months of November and December were record highs for us this year,” he said. “We anticipate the growth to continue, and it has an amazing impact on our growth. Magnolia combined with everything that the city of Waco, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Creative Waco and all the other attractions like Cameron Park Zoo, Mayborn, Baylor, Historic Waco, Mammoth site and Texas Ranger Museum are doing to promote Waco as a destination has significantly contributed to our growth as well.”
A map where visitors are asked to mark their hometown shows visits from every U.S. state and countries all over the world, he said.
As of late Friday, Pendergraft had not provided figures from the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, and calls from the Tribune-Herald had not been returned.
The Mayborn Museum enjoyed an historic run in 2018, in more ways than one. Its Titanic exhibit on display since June attracted an estimated 50,000 visitors, contributing mightily to the year-over-year increase in attendance, assistant director of exhibits Rebecca Nall said.
“We know we do get traffic from Magnolia, people who decide to check out the museum while in town,” Nall said. “But I believe the Titanic exhibition helped us to become more of a tourist attraction in our own right. I talked with people from New Zealand who were here to visit Magnolia and made it a point of visiting the Titanic exhibit, and on opening day, I know there were people here from Austin and Dallas who mentioned coming specifically for Titanic.”
Created by Premier Exhibitions, the attraction includes more than 150 artifacts from the doomed ocean liner that sunk in the Atlantic Ocean in April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg. It will remain displayed at the Mayborn Museum through Jan. 6.
“I hope what we’ve done will demonstrate we do have attractive exhibits, and people will find themselves coming back,” Nall said.
Tourist draws are putting visitors in local hotel rooms. Third-quarter statistics show the local occupancy rate stood at 73 percent during the three-month period ending Sept. 30, well above the state average of 63.5 percent and behind only the cities of Midland and Odessa in the booming oil patch, according to figures provided by Pendergraft. She said Airbnb statistics show vacation rental owners are generating about $3.8 million in revenues for the calendar year, which translates to $236 per night.
The city has 57 permitted vacation rental properties and bed-and-breakfast inns.
Dante and Peyton Piccioni and their 10-month-old son, Ziggy, all from Columbus, Ohio, would not be spending the night in Waco, though they made a brief stop at Magnolia Market on their westward trip.
“Our first time in Waco,” Dante Piccioni said. “We’re driving from Louisiana to Phoenix, decided to spend a couple of hours here.”
“We enjoy ‘Fixer Upper,’ ” Peyton Piccioni said, referring to the hit cable show starring Magnolia Market founders Chip and Joanna Gaines.
“He does ‘Fixer Upper’ things,” she said with a nod toward her husband.
Editor’s note: Today the Tribune-Herald continues its countdown of 10 of the most memorable and significant stories we’ve covered in 2018.
After backlash from neighbors over a proposed new city of Waco landfill adjacent to the existing Waco Regional Landfill, the city bought land near Axtell and is pursuing a permit to build a landfill there, also over protests of neighbors.
A week later, consultants told the city council the TK Parkway landfill would cost the city almost $2 million more in infrastructure and another $2.4 million in annual hauling costs than it would cost at the original site off Old Lorena Road. Those figures do not include the $1.8 million to buy the first 502 acres or the $3.2 million to buy another 702 acres in September, also for the landfill. The city already owned the Old Lorena site.
The consultant projected monthly residential garbage fees, now at $14.20, would increase to $14.79 for the Old Lorena Road site, or to $17.43 for the TK Parkway site.
The proposed TK Parkway landfill site stretches well into Limestone and Hill counties, and residents there have also spoken out against the city’s plan.
The city council has taken no action to officially declare the TK Parkway land its preferred landfill site. However, the city has submitted a permit application for that site to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It has not submitted a permit application for the Old Lorena site, but officials have said staff has done some of the preliminary work that would be needed to submit an application for that site.
To quell the concerns of Axtell-area residents, leaders said the TK Parkway landfill would include an enlarged buffer zone around the active landfill area, and traffic safety improvements would be made in the area.
The state permitting process is expected to take years, and the city is expected to take further action on the issue next year.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Democrats are trading blame for the partial government shutdown but doing little substantive talking with each other, as the disruption in federal services and public employees’ pay slogs into another weekend.
Trump upped the brinkmanship by threatening anew to close the border with Mexico to press Congress to cave to his demand for money to pay for a wall. Democrats vowed to pass legislation restoring the government as soon as they take control of the House on Thursday, but that won’t accomplish anything unless Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate go along with it.
Cooped up in the White House after canceling his planned vacation to his private Florida club, Trump tweeted Saturday that he’s “in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security.” But there has been little direct contact between the sides during the stalemate, and Trump did not ask Republicans, who hold a monopoly on power in Washington for another five days, to keep Congress in session.
The president did leave the White House on Friday night to join the three men at the center of the negotiations, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, for dinner at Pence’s residence at the Naval Observatory.
As he called for Democrats to negotiate on the wall, Trump brushed off blame that his administration bore any responsibility for the recent deaths of two migrant children in Border Patrol custody. Trump claimed the deaths were “strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally.” His comments on Twitter came as his Homeland Security secretary met with medical professionals and ordered policy changes meant to better protect children detained at the border.
Meanwhile, the effects to the public of the impasse grew as the Environmental Protection Agency, which had the money to function a week longer than some agencies, implemented its shutdown plan at midnight Friday night. EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said many of the agency’s 14,000 employees were being furloughed, while disaster-response teams and certain other employees deemed essential would stay on the job. That includes workers needed for preventing immediate public health threats at more than 800 Superfund hazardous-waste sites.
Also running short on money: the Smithsonian Institution, which said its museums, art galleries and zoo in the capital will close starting midweek if the partial shutdown drags on.
But federal flood insurance policies will continue to be issued and renewed, in a reversal prompted by pressure from lawmakers, said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Trump appeared no closer to securing money for his signature border wall, which he vowed during the campaign that he would make Mexico pay for. He’s failed to do so. Now Democratic leaders are adamant that they will not authorize money for the project, calling it wasteful and ineffective. They show no signs of bending, either.
“We are far apart,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS on Friday.
Trump tweeted: “We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with.” He also threatened to cut off U.S. aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, among countries he deems have not done enough to combat illegal immigration.
He’s made similar threats in the past without following through, and it is Congress, not the president, that appropriates aid money.
The shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay.