Funding breakthrough puts bridge suicide net plan closer to approval 

click to enlarge According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocate for a suicide safety net, nearly 1,600 people have committed suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge, more than from any other location in the world. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • According to the Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocate for a suicide safety net, nearly 1,600 people have committed suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge, more than from any other location in the world.

For years, directors on the board overseeing the Golden Gate Bridge resisted spending toll revenue to construct a suicide net for the iconic bridge that sees the highest number of such deaths in the world, but the tide has turned.

On Friday, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District's board of directors will have the opportunity to approve a $76 million funding plan for the barrier that includes $7 million in state funds and $49 million in federal funds that require a local match. The district would contribute $20 million from its reserves to close the remaining gap.

According to the Marin-based Bridge Rail Foundation, an advocate for the safety net, nearly 1,600 people have committed suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge, more than from any other location in the world.

"After considerable thought, reflection and soul searching, and attentive consideration to the range of views expressed by members of the public, many of whom have testified as to the impact and consequences of suicide on their lives," the district's staff report states, "the board has concluded that construction of the suicide deterrent simply is the right thing to do at this time."

Using toll money -- the bulk of which goes toward funding daily operations and the district's bus system but also to capital projects -- to help fund the barrier became more of a possibility over the past two years with the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. Previously, the suicide barrier project was not eligible for federal funding, but the act stated that safety barriers and nets on bridges qualify.

Under the proposed funding plan, the project would receive $22 million in federal Local Highway Bridge Program funds administered by Caltrans as well as $27 million in federal Surface Transportation Program funds programmed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Before the law, bridge district General Manager Denis Mulligan explained, the board did not want to use its reserves because "at that junction they saw tolls as the only dollars."

"Fortunately, with the change in federal laws, we are able to leverage a large amount of state and federal funds," he said.

MTC spokesman John Goodwin said the suicide net has been the commission's "priority for a long time," and the $27 million will go before the full board July 23.

The $7 million in state funds would come thanks to the California Mental Health Services Act funds, pushed forward by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. When funds could not be allocated from the state general fund toward the bridge barrier, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recommended that the money come from the act.

"We can say definitely this will save lives, and over time, hundreds of lives," Leno said.

Tolls, which increased in April to $6 for FasTrak and $7 for pay-by-plate and will continue to rise through July 2018, will not increase further as part of this proposal.

Suicide numbers have fluctuated but have been high over the past few years, with 46 deaths in 2013 and 19 so far this year, through June 22. The selected barrier, which will be 20 feet below the sidewalk with orange supporting beams and unpainted stainless steel wire rope netting, would only be visible from the sidewalk next to the towers and at vista points from opposite ends of the bridge.

The suicide net isn't guaranteed to save a person's life who is determined to end it, but at places such as gorge bridges at Cornell University in New York where similar safety nets have been built, no one has jumped, Mulligan said.

"If you're going to [jump], undeniably it will hurt," he said. "But suicidal people don't want to be hurt, they want to die. It has a proven track record; it's not a new concept we're testing out there."

Board directors were split on using reserve money before the federal act passed, but among those who long advocated for toll money to be used was Supervisor David Campos.

"All options in terms of funding should have been on the table," he said. "We should have had a suicide barrier a long time ago."

One of the few survivors of Golden Gate Bridge suicide attempts, Kevin Hines, 33, who continues to suffer from bipolar disorder since jumping in 2000, said he was brought to tears when he heard the board could potentially approve funding for the net.

"For families who have lost their loved ones it's far too late," he said. "But for those people who care so much not to see another family lose a member, this is all the best they can hope for and all the best I can hope for."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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