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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 1:59 am | Fair 43º


Construction Suspended on Suicide Barrier for Cold Spring Canyon Bridge

A judge rules that Caltrans must get more public input on the environmental effects of the project

Construction of the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge suicide-prevention barrier has been temporarily suspended after a judge ruled Tuesday that Caltrans was partially noncompliant with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The civil suit was filed by Friends of the Bridge, a group of citizens represented by attorney Marc Chytilo.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle issued a long ruling, writing that the draft environmental impact report didn’t address mitigation measures for historical and aesthetic impacts and didn’t identify which of the design options would be used — “thereby effectively precluding any public comment about or public participation in the development of mitigation measures.” The final document wasn’t released or circulated among the public before the project was approved.

Therefore, the project’s approval and final EIR certification were vacated, meaning Caltrans must recirculate the final EIR for public comment. All other grounds raised by Friends of the Bridge in the lawsuit — all related to procedural issues — were denied.

The ruling doesn’t apply to the advisability of constructing a barrier, merely the compliance with CEQA, and “also will likely have no impact on the ultimate determination of whether or not a suicide barrier will be constructed on the Cold Spring Bridge.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Caltrans was represented by Ankush Agarwal, who argued that the final EIR had no substantial design, impact or mitigation measure changes from the draft.

“Recirculation is just another opportunity to comment on simple refinements,” Agarwal said.

He said Caltrans was upfront with the public in that the aesthetic and historical impacts couldn’t be entirely mitigated, but the “benefits of this project outweigh the impacts.”

Agarwal and Caltrans public information officer Jim Shivers said they’re committed to moving forward with the project, but added after a post-hearing huddle that they would temporarily suspend construction and fully comply with recirculating the final EIR.

“Basically, they skipped a step and we caught them on it,” Chytilo said.

Chytilo said he was surprised at Agarwal’s intention to proceed with construction — which began June 28 — and Anderle scheduled an Aug. 24 hearing to consider what to do about the construction. At this time, it’s unclear what the state of the bridge will be during the suspension, regarding road closures and construction equipment, Shivers said.

Marc McGinnes, an environmental lawyer, professor and activist who led the Friends of the Bridge in its earliest stages, said the group is “delighted” at the ruling.

“We pointed this out to Caltrans early on,” he said.

Colin Jones, Caltrans’ manager of public and legislative affairs, said Caltrans was concerned from a safety — not emotional — perspective and similarly would pursue erecting a guardrail if people were falling from cliffs in Big Sur, for example.

“People are using our facility to kill themselves,” he said.

The previously approved project is a 9-foot-7-inch grid-mesh barrier on both sides on the span of the bridge. The barrier curves inward at the top.

The estimated cost of the project is about $3 million, including federal stimulus funds and State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) funds, Shivers said. Construction costs are estimated at $778,000, and the rest consists of administrative costs.

On whether the extra staff time — in filing additional litigation documents and stalled construction because of Tuesday’s ruling — would increase the cost of the project, Shivers said, “Certainly there is a cost attached to anything that we do.”

Click here to read Noozhawk’s series on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.

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

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