Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bridge Makeover

Golden Gate district seeks public input on five suicide-barrier designs

The Press Democrat reports:

The Golden Gate Bridge is one step closer to a historic safety makeover as public comment begins on a project intended to stop people from taking their lives by leaping over the iconic orange railings.

"This is a milestone," said Bridge District spokeswoman Mary Currie. "This is something that has been discussed since the first suicide the year the bridge was built."

But with current costs for the project estimated to be as much as $50 million, the barriers are still far from a reality.

"From here it will be about fund raising," Currie said.

The district released an environmental impact report Monday that shows five possible barrier designs.

Four of the five designs would use additional fencing along the bridge's walkways to dissuade potential jumpers and get in the way of those who might try.

A fifth design places a retracting net 20 feet under the bridge, to catch and restrain jumpers.

With an estimated cost of $25 million, a stainless steel cable net is the least expensive of the options studied in the report. The other designs are in the $40 million to $50 million range.

Costs of all possible designs are expected to grow in the time leading up to construction because of the rising costs of steel, Currie said.

Currie said the possible designs all meet specific standards, including maintaining the bridge's cultural and historic status.

But that does not mean they would not have an impact on the bridge's appearance.

Four of the designs -- those involving taller railings -- could significantly alter views from the bridge, a major draw for tourists.

A fifth design -- the netting -- alters the profile of the bridge from viewing points on either side.

"We are introducing new elements, a big railing or a big net," Currie said. "We are changing the visitor's experience."

Tourists taking in the sights Monday were cautious of any plans that would impede their views and photo opportunities.

"Any barrier would dramatically change the charm of the bridge," said Jimmy Castillo, visiting from Los Angeles. "And I doubt it would prevent them from committing suicide another way. They should keep the bridge as it is, a historical site."

While camera-toting tourists bristled at the thought of a changed bridge, suicide-prevention advocates cheered what they saw as a momentous move toward addressing a major safety issue.

"Anything that gets in someone's way buys them time and saves their life," said Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. "Suicide in the entire area will drop."

This year, 10 people have committed suicide by jumping off the bridge, and 29 people have been stopped in the process of attempting to jump. Thirty-eight suicides were committed last year, 31 in 2006 and 23 in 2005, according to the bridge district.

Eighty barrier designs were originally proposed and tested for various factors. From those, five designs were chosen, including a sixth "no build" option. The report, completed by DMJM Harris Inc. of Oakland, does not include any recommendations to the district.

The report is available online at, and public comment is open through Aug. 25.

After public comment is collected, bridge directors will hold hearings on how to proceed.

Currie said the district's desire is to select a locally preferred plan, vetted through public comment, possibly by the end of the year.

Fund raising the millions needed for construction would be the next goal, Currie said.

In the past, board members have resisted the idea of a barrier, saying such a project would cost too much, would alter the majestic crossing and might not work.

Barrier supporters hope attention from a 2006 film "The Bridge," which featured the startling images of people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, might change their opinions.