Emotions ran high in the Cold Spring Bridge public hearing held Thursday, October 16, with speakers both praising and condemning the Caltrans proposal to build suicide prevention barriers on the historical bridge along Highway 154.
The public hearing was held during the SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Government) regular meeting and was called in response to pressure from Friends of the Bridge, headed by retired UCSB professor and environmental lawyer Marc McGinnes, who claimed that state elected officials had thwarted public input from the early stages of the project.
The meeting opened with a review of the Caltrans project and its stated goals of reducing the number of suicides from the bridge while increasing the safety of law enforcement and rescue personnel. It cited the 46 deaths by suicide from the bridge since opening to public traffic in 1963 – including three in the past year – as motivation for extending the already existing railing to create a 9.5-foot barrier.
The effectiveness of the barrier to actually prevent suicides rather than divert people to other methods or locations has been a central issue hotly debated by both sides involved. Dr. Lisa Firestone, director of research and education for the Glendon Association – a group comprised of mental health experts who advocate suicide prevention – reiterated Glendon’s endorsement of the Caltrans proposal. She cited various studies that confirmed that “a physical barrier is the only proven method for the prevention of suicide by jumping.” As for the alternative “human barrier” proposal suggested by McGinnes and Friends of the Bridge – which calls for measures such as installing video surveillance, emergency callbox installations, and a single bar safety rail – Firestone stated that it has yet to be scientifically evaluated for effectiveness in preventing suicide attempts.
In response, McGinnes defended his stance against the barrier stating that the average of a single suicidal death per year occurring at the Cold Spring Bridge, while concerning, doesn’t compare to the average of four accidental deaths occurring on Highway 154 annually, where narrow roads and blind spots sometimes cause fatal collisions. He argued that the projected $3.3 million dollar cost of the barrier project would be better spent paying for road improvements that would prevent the most deaths possible.
McGinnes also went on to talk about the Friends of the Bridge coalition’s desire to develop a solution that will prevent suicide attempts without defacing and devaluing the aesthetics of the structure. “Feelings are facts,” he said. “I empathize with families who have lost loved ones. So also should people empathize with the feelings of people seeking beauty.” Dr. Jarell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion and called the Caltrans proposal a band-aid solution. “This steel barrier idea is a war on suicide that doesn’t address the underlying illness, like the war on terror that doesn’t address our addiction to oil,” Jackman said.
The mother of Matthew Aydelott, who committed suicide from the bridge last month, spoke after Glasgow about her devastating personal loss and desire to prevent other people from dealing with the pain she and her family were currently experiencing. Many other community members who had lost loved ones to suicide came forward sharing their support for the Caltrans barrier project. In all, more than 30 citizens made statements regarding the project, mostly in favor of it.
After the public hearings, the Board of Supervisors took the floor and gave a series of poignant closing comments. Supervisor Joe Centeno echoed one of McGinnes’s views stating, “We should be concerned with achieving the greatest amount of safety improvement for citizens possible : We should be having hearings like this for Highways 66 and 154.” But, in the end, Centeno voted to support the project. On the other hand, Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett expressed frustration, saying “I feel sorry for you, Mr. McGinnes, that you value aesthetics above human life.”
After the comments, the SBCAG unanimously voted to recommend that Caltrans proceed with the Suicide Prevention Project, but this won’t be the last the community will hear of it. When asked if McGinnes would pursue litigation as earlier proposed, he stated he would. “Yes, we intend to challenge in court the lack of compliance by Caltrans with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act),” he said. In response, Caltrans spokesperson Jim Shivers said: “That is of his decision to pursue. We are just working on a project that will save lives and are unwavering in our commitment to it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly attributed statements made by Jarell Jackman to UCSB professor Garett Glasgow.