No sooner was the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) out for a barrier intended to prevent suicide jumpers from taking flight off Cold Spring Bridge than opponents were attacking it and the barrier concept in general. Marc McGinnes, a retired UCSB professor who has led the charge against the proposed barrier-a steel fence at least six feet high curving inward at the top-said the draft EIR would be challenged. “We’re counting on you not to allow our tax dollars to be wasted in this way,” McGinnes told the SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments) board on May 15. “This is a boondoggle, a lavishly funded project in search of a purpose.” If Caltrans gets to the point of certifying its EIR, McGinnes plans to file a lawsuit.
Caltrans District 5 Director Rich Krumholz indicated the controversial project will continue to go forward, a decision that sits squarely on his shoulders. The director’s May 15 report to the SBCAG board was more of a courtesy call and status update. The board, which voted in support of the project in June 2006, really has no say at this point, and even if it did, many of its members seemed sympathetic to the cause. Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said she was “so glad this project is being looked at and going forward.” Guadalupe Mayor Lupe Alvarez said it appeared a bridge barrier would be built despite the feelings of the board, a situation that irritated Lompoc Mayor Dick DeWees. “What’s the point of going through the public process when the decision has already been made?” DeWees asked.
The historic bridge, providing a breathtaking view 400 feet above Cold Spring Canyon along Highway 154, has been the site of 43 suicides from the time it first opened to traffic in 1963, according to Caltrans. No one has ever survived a jump from the bridge. Sheriff Bill Brown, whose department responds to calls from the bridge, is a proponent of the project. The department has responded to roughly 160 incidents in the last eight years. “The railing is the right thing to do for the right reason,” said Sheriff’s Commander Dominick Palera.
“The same qualities that make [the bridge] so magnificent, and its setting, constitute a tremendous intrinsic value,” Krumholz said. “But it also attracts this disturbing phenomenon of suicides.” Lisa Firestone, director of education and research for Glendon Association, a group dedicated to suicide prevention, claimed research shows that if people are prevented from committing suicide in one location they often change their minds. “People who take their own lives are ambivalent,” she said. “Part of their life wants to die; part of the life wants to live.” Restricting someone’s means while a person is on the negative side of the ambivalence offers more time for intervention, she said. But McGinnes, citing research by UCSB Professor Garrett Glasgow, suggested otherwise. “Barriers divert people, they do not save lives,” McGinnes claimed. Call boxes have proven to be effective in other parts of the country, he said.
The cost of the barrier would be paid with funding from the State Highway Operation and Protection Program and wouldn’t use any county funds. The project isn’t competing with others for funding, but rather is prioritized in a Caltrans database in terms of fatalities occurring in certain highway locations. While initial Caltrans estimates put the cost at only $605,000, the total cost is now expected to be $3.2 million.
Caltrans is now considering only two options: grid-patterned mesh fencing or metal bars. A safety-netting barrier below the bridge was rejected. Not only would it make it more difficult for law enforcement to rescue survivors, Krumholz said, but jumpers could then just jump again off the netting into the canyon below. The no-build alternative was also rejected because, Krumholz said, it “just simply doesn’t address the serious safety situation we have at that location.”
Forums to take input on the barrier will be held Monday, June 9, at the S.B. Public Library, and Tuesday, June 10, at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, from 5:30-8:30 p.m.