[Noozhawk’s note: This is the second article in a four-day series on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge. Click here for Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen’s explanation of our series. Click here for Day One’s main story: Public Safety, Preservation Collide on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge. Click here for a related slide show.]
Ever since it was built, suicides have been a consistent problem at Cold Spring Canyon Bridge. In 2005, however, the idea of a preventative barrier gained renewed interest.
That summer, the Santa Barbara community was rocked when an 18-year-old star athlete from San Marcos High School fell to his death from the bridge. Calls poured in to the Glendon Association, a nonprofit mental health organization, as classmates and community members sought answers to their questions about what signs they had missed and what could have been done to prevent the tragic outcome.
In November of that year, a task force of public safety and mental health representatives was formed, and the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee met to identify strategies to thwart future incidents at the bridge. The group decided that installing a physical barrier would be the most effective, and several types were considered.
One of the alternatives was a “mesh” barrier with welded wires, spaced one to two inches apart. Another alternative would space vertical steel rods six inches apart between the posts. Both barriers would, to some extent, obstruct the views of those traveling across the bridge on Highway 154. Not building anything was the third alternative.
“The project would result in substantial adverse impacts to the visual environment,” according to the project’s environmental report. “Both proposed barrier alternatives would be incompatible with the natural character of the surrounding landscape, would distract from the existing architectural style, and would diminish the historic qualities of the bridge.”
In the end, the mesh barrier was selected because it would inhibit views less. Renderings show the barrier extending nine feet above the surface of the roadway, on both sides of the bridge. The top of the barrier curves inward toward traffic.
A host of other ideas was explored, too, ranging from infeasible to outlandish. One proposal had a giant net stretching across the canyon, located just beneath the bridge to catch would-be jumpers; that idea was discarded because a person could jump out of the net anyway before rescue crews could arrive. Another alternative deployed horizontal bars instead of vertical ones, but was dismissed because the “ladder-like” configuration could still be scaled.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking alternative not chosen was that of a “human barrier,” which relies on a personal intervention to stop a jumper. Under the proposal, video cameras and call boxes connected to crisis intervention would be installed on the bridge, which would be patrolled by surveillance teams trained in suicide prevention. The Golden Gate Bridge employed a similar system between 1993 and 2007, but the bridge actually recorded higher numbers of deaths despite the measures.
The logistics of the personal intervention proposal also proved difficult to overcome because of the bridge’s remote location. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department estimates that deputies can get to the bridge in 15 minutes, if they don’t encounter any delays.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Dominick Palera said the department supports elements of the human barrier, like call boxes on the bridge.
“We think they’re important measures and that people have a chance to reach out,” he told Noozhawk. “But these aren’t going to prevent what’s occurring.”
Public workshops on the project began in 2006, with public comment “overwhelmingly supportive of the proposed barrier,” according to the project’s environmental impact report.
But people also spoke out in opposition to the project, citing varied reasons. Arguments that the money could be better spent elsewhere; questions about the effectiveness of a physical barrier; and comments that touched on individual liberty, that people have the right to commit to suicide if they choose, were all made at the workshops.
Public input continued into 2008, and more controversy arose the next year, this time centered around the project’s funding. Money for the barrier project originally was to come from Caltrans’ safety improvement program, but the agency began to investigate other ways to fund the barrier.
Construction on a deteriorating Highway 101 overpass in western Goleta was about to be stalled by California’s financial woes, and Caltrans proposed a three-way trade. In an elaborate swap, federal stimulus funds were chosen to fund the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge project instead. If monies reserved for highway safety projects could replace more volatile funding from the state, the Goleta project to fix the Hollister Avenue overpass could move forward.
Further, the Goleta project’s state funding was transferred to another project on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, where the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG, has been working to widen the freeway and make improvements between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road. This money was then used as that project’s reserves and $1.5 million in stimulus money that had formerly served as the Milpas/Hot Springs reserve was moved to Cold Spring Canyon Bridge to begin construction.
The bridge barrier project’s state highway operation and protection program funds were then given to the Ellwood/Hollister interchange project in Goleta, completing the swap.
But moving stimulus money to a rural location from a critical urban highway project didn’t sit well with some members of the public. Marc McGinnes, a leader of the preservationist group, Friends of the Bridge, opposed the decision, asserting that the SBCAG board had violated the Brown Act because of the way it had listed the item on its meeting agenda in the process. The item went back before the board, and five members of the public showed up to oppose the funding swap.
The transaction was ultimately approved unanimously by the SBCAG board.
Last July, it was assumed the bridge barrier project would be ready for construction by the end of 2009, and if delays caused stimulus funding to become unavailable, the funds could be reallocated to alternative local projects.
So far, Caltrans has said the project is being funded primarily through those stimulus funds, and with the other half coming from state monies for highway safety improvements. The total amount of the project is about $3 million.
“It’s a good use of our stimulus dollars because we can do it right away and it gets money pumped back into the economy, in addition to solving this issue with the fatalities,” said Jim Kemp, SBCAG’s executive director. “We thought it would be good to have a reserve there so we can continue to pay the bills … if for some reason the state funds just dried right up.”
With stimulus funds as reserve, those monies must be spent within a certain time frame or they can no longer be used.
“It was becoming apparent that we were going to have to put those funds into something else because the state’s cash crunch for the Milpas to Hot Springs Project has been cleared up, at least for the time being,” Kemp said.
Funding for the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge project has been there for about three years, according to Kemp, and is from Caltrans money specifically dedicated for safety improvements on Highway 154.
Because the state of California owns the highway system, it must evaluate and develop solutions for areas with high accident and high fatality concentrations.
“If it has a higher number than average of injuries or fatalities, then the state is compelled to do something about that,” Kemp said.
Regarding the SBCAG board’s unanimous vote to approve the bridge barrier project, Kemp says each member may have had different reasons for supporting it. SBCAG’s 13-member board consisting of all five county supervisors and one city council member from each of the county’s eight cities: Buellton, Carpinteria, Goleta, Guadalupe, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Solvang.
Personally, Kemp said he expects the barrier to be very effective at preventing fatalities on the bridge.
“I think that it’s not going to be the magnet that it is today for people wanting to end their lives,” he said.
“If it saves the lives of people, I think this is money that’s well worth it. This is throwing a life preserver to someone in a stormy sea.”
Noozhawk’s Cold Spring Canyon Bridge Series
Tomorrow: For Barrier Opponents, There’s No Bridging This Divide
» Click here for free suicide prevention resources that are available 24 hours a day.
» Click here for the first story in Noozhawk’s four-day series on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge: Public Safety, Preservation Collide on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.
» Click here for Day Three’s main story: For Barrier Opponents, There’s No Bridging This Divide.
» Click here for Day Four’s main story: Bridge Barrier Debate May Be Resolved in Span of a Month.
» Click here for a list of the various suicide prevention measures that were considered.
» Click here for a list of landmark bridges around the world employing suicide-prevention barriers.
» Leading Off: Just What Can We Say, and How? Suicide is a touchy topic for the media. Here’s what Noozhawk does, and why.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer email@example.com contributed to this report.