When crowds descend on Crissy Field on Sunday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, some might notice a seemingly mundane display on the fringe of the celebration: thousands of shoes, 1,558 pairs to be exact.
It’s a stark reminder that, despite three-quarters of a century of advocacy efforts, a suicide deterrent system has yet to be installed on the bridge.
Click on the photo to the right to see a graphic about the bridge suicide numbers.
Although lauded as an engineering masterpiece and a beloved international landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge has long been a magnet for desperate individuals in dire straits.
Since opening in May 1937, an estimated 1,558 people have died by suicide after leaping off the famed span. No other site in the world boasts a number remotely close to that.
The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District approved a plan in 2008 to hang a steel net 20 feet below the span to deter suicide attempts or catch people as they fell. Yet the proposal was passed with the caveat that no district funds would pay for the project.
Four years later, the $50 million project remains underfunded by $45 million.
For those who urged the bridge district to accept a suicide deterrent system, the lack of progress has been tough to swallow.
“There is one way to summarize our frustration: We’re still counting bodies,” said Paul Muller of the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization dedicated to erecting a deterrent. “We’ve seen more than 30 deaths a year in the last few years because there hasn’t been a system in place.”
John Bateson, a local author whose book “The Final Leap” has stirred up renewed interest in the deterrent since its April release, said it’s unconscionable that the bridge district has not been doing more to find funding.
“If there were three deaths a month on the cable car system, you can bet that someone would do something,” Bateson said. “But three people leap to their death each month off the Golden Gate Bridge. And the entity that is solely responsible for preventing those deaths is doing nothing.”
Janet Reilly, a bridge district board member since 2003, said the magnitude of the $50 million project was too much for the agency to handle. Since there were conflicting views from board members at the time of the 2008 vote, a compromise — to have outside sources fund the deterrent — was the best decision, Reilly said.
Denis Mulligan, the bridge district’s general manager, said the agency struggled with the choice of cutting bus service or raising bridge tolls to pay for the project, ultimately opting not to do either. But after 75 years of intransigence on the subject, Mulligan said it was a major accomplishment that the district even approved the concept of the deterrent.
“The change in the board’s direction reflects societal change,” Mulligan said. “As a society, we generally don’t talk about suicide. But those values are changing.”
Now, after years of false hopes and missteps, advocates for the net say there finally might be a glimmer of hope.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has proposed enabling legislation that would allow local agencies to use federal transportation funds to pay for suicide prevention systems on landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
While the current federal transportation bill has been temporarily extended nine times, advocates are hopeful Boxer’s leadership in the conference committee discussing the plan could bear fruit.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, a former bridge district board member and longtime supporter of the suicide net, said the project could be shovel-ready and fully funded within a year.
Mulligan and San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who sits on the bridge district board, both said they are confident in Boxer’s ability to secure promising language in the federal transportation bill.
Boxer’s office declined to comment.
If funding arrives, it will be a major victory for mental health advocates, who have been pushing for a deterrent since the bridge opened.
“This will finally fulfill the mission of the district — to make the bridge safe for everyone,” said Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. “It’s a goal we’ve been pursuing for decades.”