Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 11:20 am | Fair 71º


For Barrier Opponents, There’s No Bridging This Divide

Friends of the Bridge places emphasis on human intervention as best prevention but looks to legal system to mount challenge. Third in a four-part series

[Noozhawk’s note: This is the third 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 Day Two’s main story: Creativity a Hallmark of Bridge Barrier Alternatives, Funding. Click here for a related slide show.]

Wending its way through the approval process, the plan to erect suicide-prevention barriers on Cold Spring Canyon Bridge has faced consistent, vocal opposition — mainly from Friends of the Bridge, a preservationist group spearheaded by environmental advocate Marc McGinnes.

McGinnes, a retired environmental studies lecturer at UCSB and founding attorney of the Environmental Defense Center, has banded together with other advocates of the bridge’s historical, environmental and aesthetic beauty to form an organized opposition to the project.

Marc McGinnes, a leader of Friends of the Bridge, which has been fighting officials over the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge barrier, is skeptical that the current proposal will actually prevent suicides.
Marc McGinnes, a leader of Friends of the Bridge, which has been fighting officials over the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge barrier, is skeptical that the current proposal will actually prevent suicides. “The bridge became a metaphor for beauty or fear,” he says, and he thinks there are more effective methods to ensure safety on the structure. (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk photo)

Caltrans approved the 9-foot, 7-inch barriers last year after local law enforcement and the Glendon Association, a nonprofit mental health organization, raised concerns over suicides taking place at the bridge. Since the structure opened to traffic in 1964, there have been 53 deaths considered suicides at the site, and proponents say a barrier could prevent suicides and protect emergency responders.

Friends of the Bridge has brought attention to the issue through the media, public comment at various government hearings and meetings, and its signature walks along the bridge — which have occasionally featured its members playing musical instruments they have no idea how to play.

Dubbing their random parades the “Walking Charge of the Light Brigade,” they say they hope to bring attention to the bridge’s majestic beauty and dispel the imagery of it being a place where people go to take their own lives.

While other community members have expressed opposition to the barriers, no one person or group has been as outspoken as Friends of the Bridge.

Noozhawk met up with three of the group’s more involved members — McGinnes, fellow UCSB environmental studies faculty member Greg Mohr and Douglas Gillies, an attorney, facilitator, author and documentary filmmaker — to dig into their personal, ideological and practical reasons for opposing the barrier.

The three agree with raising the bridge’s rail height, which stands less than four feet high, but prefer that a “human barrier” intervention approach be used rather than the nearly 10-foot-tall metal grid/mesh fencing barrier.

Questioning the effectiveness of a physical barrier to prevent suicides, rather than delay or redirect them, the men have attempted to start a conversation about the human intervention approach.

“The bridge is a symbol of how dying makes Americans crazy,” Gillies said. “Think of all the places you could put fences up. We want people protected from hazards but you can’t put barriers by every natural and manmade opportunity to jump.”

Closed-circuit cameras and call-and-speaker box systems have been implemented on other bridges, but local authorities ultimately ruled out such measures because of the bridge’s remote location and lack of resources to monitor the feeds.

Suicide preservation groups such as the Glendon Association make a strong case for means restriction, including physical barriers and other forms of intervention. Some of the resources listed on Glendon’s Web site include articles on means restriction under the title of “There is no debate: barriers save lives.”

“The bridge became a metaphor for beauty or fear,” McGinnes said. Some have dubbed the bridge, and others like it, “suicide bridges,” while Friends of the Bridge call it the Bridge to Paradise, for its views of the Santa Ynez Valley from Highway 154 and the structure’s historical value.

Completed in late 1963, Cold Spring Canyon Bridge is about to turn 50, which has caused McGinnes and the others to worry about precedence.

“We’re not aesthetic freaks,” McGinnes said. “If they can do this here, the birth of the environmental movement, they can do this anywhere.”

McGinnes was the founding attorney of the Environmental Defense Center, which was established in 1977 partly in response to the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, so he takes this personally.

The bridge’s historical and aesthetic significance links the group’s more personal opinions to a more tangible one. The biggest problem all along hasn’t been why the barriers will be built, but how — and the group is suing Caltrans over the project’s approval process.

In the lawsuit, Friends of the Bridge vs. Caltrans, the group argues that Caltrans failed to proceed in the manner required by the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, especially in creating the project’s environmental impact report.

McGinnes told Noozhawk he’s glad not to be alone in the fight anymore, and Friends of the Bridge is in the process of creating a new executive committee.

Handling the case for Friends of the Bridge is Marc Chytilo, an attorney and environmental advocate who has viewed McGinnes as a mentor since coming to Santa Barbara in the 1980s. Both men have worked with the EDC and are very familiar with CEQA.

Environmental impact reports and the public review process are at the heart of CEQA, Chytilo said, and the suit claims Caltrans’ project approval path didn’t honor key aspects of the review requirements.

A historical impact analysis, selection of the project design and identification of mitigation measures were not explored until after the draft EIR was prepared and public review closed, according to the suit’s opening brief filed for Friends of the Bridge.

Cold Spring Canyon Bridge is by far the largest steel arch bridge in California and is designated by Caltrans as a Category 2 bridge, which means it has been determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s official list of structures, districts, sites, buildings and objects deemed worthy of preservation. The structure is the only Category 2 bridge in California that is less than 50 years old, according to Janice Calpo with the Caltrans Environmental Program. The bridge wasn’t included in the 2003-2006 Statewide Historic Bridge Inventory Update, but was evaluated for the barrier project, and it was determined to be eligible with exceptional significance, Calpo wrote Noozhawk in an e-mail.

Milford Donaldson, the state’s historic preservation officer, and a federal advisory council on historic preservation clearly stated that the project’s process shouldn’t be a precedent for future suicide barriers, the brief states.

CEQA violations alleged in the brief include depriving the public of the opportunity to comment on central elements of the project and draft EIR, as the draft impact report didn’t include all adequate information. The funding process for the project — outlined in more detail in a previous story in this Noozhawk series — has also been cause for opposition.

“Part of Marc’s outrage over this project has been the misuse of funds,” Chytilo said.

The total project cost is about $3 million, about $1.3 million of which are American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds diverted from the Highway 101 widening project between Hot Springs Road and Milpas Street in Santa Barbara. The other $1.6 million are State Highway Operation and Protection Program funds, dollars that have already been spent, said Jim Shivers, Caltrans District 5 spokesman.

Construction costs are estimated at $750,000, increased from an initial bid announcement of $648,000 to Bugler Construction of Pleasanton. Administrative costs — including staff time, drafting environmental documents and holding public meetings — push the cost up to $3 million, Shivers told Noozhawk.

“That the administrative overhead is over 100 percent is shocking,” Chytilo said.

The case clearly demonstrates that the barrier is a hot topic.

“The project evokes strong emotions and deep-seated opinions concerning the appropriateness of erecting a physical barrier on this historic bridge to address the tragic social phenomenon of suicide,” the Friends of the Bridge brief states. “These issues are not the subject of this litigation.”

“Any good judge would recognize our CEQA claims are based on procedural errors,” Chytilo said.

The opening brief was filed in April, and Caltrans filed a responsive brief last week. Petitioners want an injunction and no activity on barrier approvals until the respondents have complied with CEQA. They also seek reasonable attorney fees and costs of the lawsuit.

“Because construction is imminent, we’re expediting our briefing and hearing,” Chytilo said. Friends of the Bridge hopes to have the hearing before the end of May since construction will likely start in this month as well.

For its part, Caltrans denied all allegations and asked that the proceedings be dismissed. The response also asked that Friends of the Bridge take nothing from the lawsuit and instead, Caltrans be compensated for their legal costs and any other relief the court decides is appropriate.

The brief states that Friends of the Bridge failed to exhaust its administrative remedies and they didn’t state enough facts for a cause of action.

Noozhawk’s Cold Spring Canyon Bridge Series

Tomorrow: Bridge Barrier Debate May Be Resolved in Span of a Month

» 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 Two’s main story: Creativity a Hallmark of Bridge Barrier Alternatives, Funding.

» Click here for Day Four’s main story: Bridge Barrier Debate May Be Resolved in Span of a Month.

» Click here for Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen’s explanation of our series.

» Click here for a timeline of Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.

» 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.

» Click here for Cold Spring Canyon Bridge facts and engineering numbers.

» 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 Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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