Coron­ado Bridge bar­rier urged

Mayor and the com­mu­nity push for struc­ture to pre­vent sui­cides.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By John Wilkens john.wilkens @sdunion­tri­ Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tri­bune.

SAN DIEGO — Small wooden crosses dot­ted the lawn out­side the Coron­ado li­brary, re­minders of the hun­dreds of peo­ple who have died jump­ing off the iconic bridge that con­nects the city to San Diego. The peo­ple who put the crosses there were mak­ing a point: Enough is enough.

It’s a mes­sage that seems to be get­ting through.

In­side the li­brary, Cal­trans — which owns and main­tains the bridge — was hold­ing an open house to show the public ex­am­ples of sui­cide-preven­tion bar­ri­ers in other places: Santa Bar­bara, San Fran­cisco and Auck­land, New Zealand. Com­mu­nity mem­bers walked around, asked ques­tions and filled out forms to give their feed­back.

“I re­ally hope they will put some­thing up there,” said Chuck Leek, whose 23year-old son, Chris, killed him­self at the bridge last year.

“They have to make it so it isn’t so easy for peo­ple to go over the side.”

The Thurs­day night gath­er­ing in Coron­ado, and an­other the night be­fore in Bar­rio Lo­gan, were part of a fea­si­bil­ity study Cal­trans is do­ing. It will in­ves­ti­gate “best prac­tices” at other bridges and de­ter­mine what op­tions might work here.

The study is ex­pected to be com­pleted next spring. If a bar­rier is deemed fea­si­ble, the project would then face en­vi­ron­men­tal and funding hur­dles be­fore any con­struc­tion could be­gin.

Opened in 1969, the San Diego-Coron­ado Bridge arches 2.1 miles across the bay, is used by 90,000 cars daily and has be­come one of the re­gion’s most iconic struc­tures. It is also the dead­li­est.

The first sui­cide there was in the early 1970s. It’s un­clear how many have died since, be­cause var­i­ous agen­cies that re­spond to the deaths some­times have con­flict­ing sta­tis­tics. The Bridge Col­lab­o­ra­tive for Sui­cide Preven­tion, a grass­roots group formed in Coron­ado in late 2014, puts the to­tal at about 400.

Some com­mu­nity mem­bers have been try­ing for decades to get a bar­rier erected. In the mid-1980s, af­ter the 100th sui­cide was re­ported, a coali­tion of churches in Coron­ado hosted meet­ings but got nowhere with govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Cal­trans balked at the costs and de­cided in­stead to in­stall signs urg­ing peo­ple to call a cri­sis line for coun­sel­ing. “Bar­ri­ers would de­stroy the beauty of the bridge,” Coron­ado’s then-mayor, Pat Cal­la­han, said.

Cal­la­han also said that “peo­ple in­tent on com­mit­ting sui­cide will do it else­where if they don’t do it there” — a com­mon ob­jec­tion to bar­ri­ers, but one that has been dis­puted in var­i­ous stud­ies.

For ex­am­ple, a 2013 Univer­sity of Mel­bourne re­port that eval­u­ated the ef­fec­tive­ness of bar­ri­ers on bridges in New Zealand, Bri­tain, Washington, D.C., Maine, Switzer­land and Canada found an 86% re­duc­tion in sui­cides at the var­i­ous sites, and a 28% de­crease in jump­ing fa­tal­i­ties over­all in the sur­round­ing cities.

Coron­ado’s cur­rent mayor, Richard Bailey, sup­ports erect­ing a bar­rier, not just be­cause of its po­ten­tial to save lives but be­cause it could halt the bridge clo­sures that oc­cur when emer­gency crews re­spond to a po­ten­tial sui­cide.

Last year, the bridge had to be shut down 35 times, Bailey said. That in­con­ve­niences thou­sands of mo­torists and can have rip­ple ef­fects through work­places, re­tail es­tab­lish­ments and fam­i­lies.

“It is time for a so­lu­tion,” Bailey said.

Lau­rie Ber­man, Cal­trans dis­trict direc­tor for San Diego and Im­pe­rial coun­ties, said she thinks it hasn’t been a pri­or­ity in part be­cause sui­cide preven­tion “isn’t your typ­i­cal trans­porta­tion project.”

Lately, how­ever, Cal­trans staff “has been see­ing the im­pacts [sui­cides and sui­cide at­tempts] have on daily op­er­a­tions,” Ber­man said, “and they de­cided it makes sense to take a closer look and at least see what’s fea­si­ble.”

Dur­ing Thurs­day’s open house at the Coron­ado li­brary, dozens of peo­ple looked at poster boards con­tain­ing pho­tos and in­for­ma­tion about bar­ri­ers in other cities.

One of the dis­plays was of the in­ward-tilt­ing, un­climbable fenc­ing in­stalled for $3.2 mil­lion on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in Santa Bar­bara County in 2012. That 1,200-foot-long steel arch bridge, built over a gorge on High­way 154, had been the site of more than 50 sui­cides. It no longer at­tracts jumpers.

An­other dis­play high­lighted nets be­ing in­stalled on the 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran­cisco, where more than 1,600 peo­ple have com­mit­ted sui­cide since 1937. The nets will be 20 feet be­low the road­way and ex­tend out over the wa­ter 20 feet. Com­ple­tion of the $200-mil­lion project is ex­pected in 2021.

Sev­eral peo­ple at the open house said they knew some­one who had jumped from the Coron­ado bridge, which is about 200 feet tall at its high­est point.

Su­san Por­tillo’s son, Adam, 19, killed him­self in 2011.

“I think a bar­rier would have stopped him,” she said. “He was on his way to work, and for some rea­son that was the day.”

K.C. Al­fred San Diego Union-Tri­bune

OPENED in 1969, the San Diego-Coron­ado Bridge stretches 2.1 miles across the bay and has be­come one of the re­gion’s most iconic struc­tures. The first sui­cide there was in the early 1970s; one group puts the to­tal at about 400.

John Gib­bins

CAL­TRANS, which owns and main­tains the bridge, is con­duct­ing a study of bar­rier op­tions. If a bar­rier is deemed fea­si­ble, it would face en­vi­ron­men­tal and funding hur­dles be­fore con­struc­tion could be­gin.

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