Newsom, panel say no to suicide barrier

Mayor Gavin Newsom and an advisory panel that he put together have suggested that the Golden Gate Bridge district should pursue alternative means to a suicide barrier, a position that is in contrast with The City’s previous stance on the subject.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is currently weighing five alternatives for a suicide barrier on the bridge. The district also left open the option to keep the bridge without a physical barrier.

In a letter submitted to the bridge district, a five-person panel of architects and engineers put together by Newsom wrote that funding intended for the physical suicide barrier would be better invested in training employees and volunteers to be more equipped in suicide prevention techniques.

“Our first preference would be to build a more robust, ongoing suicide-prevention effort that could include more patrols who are trained in counseling and suicide prevention,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said.

That viewpoint goes against past city policy, notably a 2005 resolution approved by the Board of Supervisors that specifically supports a suicide barrier.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who sits on the bridge district’s board of directors, said Newsom’s advisory panel should have consisted of mental health experts, not planning and design professionals.

“They are in the wrong jurisdiction for this study, and I think their conclusions are wrong,” Ammiano said.

The bridge district closed its public comment period on potential barrier options on Aug. 25. Of the 4,147 responses from individuals and agencies, a slim majority — 50.13 percent — supported some form of suicide barrier. On July 22, about one month before the public comment period closed, 75 percent of the respondents were opposed to a physical suicide barrier.

Newsom’s advisory panel did stipulate that if suicide prevention training was not tenable, then the best option would be the proposal to place horizontal netting about 20 feet below the deck of the bridge.

The panel wrote that the other proposed barrier options would, “seriously undermine the integrity of the original design.”

The panel also opposed the proposed transparent panels, saying they would “become scratched or discolored, and would cause reflections that are distracting from the design of the bridge and the views.”

Advisory panel member John Kriken, an architect from the San Francisco-based firm SOM, said a case study of a similar netting method used on a bridge in Bern, Switzerland, convinced the group that the option would be the most suitable for Golden Gate Bridge.

“Not only is the netting the least obtrusive option, but the Bern study showed that suicide attempts completely stopped when the netting went up,” Kriken said. “There appears to be significant preventive value in simply having it there.”

The California Highway Patrol also weighed in on the suicide barrier, issuing a statement to the bridge district opposing the netting. The statement said the netting would cause lengthy traffic delays and require extensive officer training.

Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie would not comment on any agency letters regarding the suicide barrier.

On Oct. 10, the bridge district’s board of directors will hear a presentation on the public comments regarding the suicide barrier. On Oct. 24, the district could possibly take action to approve a barrier, which would cost somewhere between $40 million and 50 million.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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