State budget includes suicide fence on Aurora Bridge

SEATTLE (AP) - Gov. Chris Gregoire is hoping to take the Aurora Bridge off the list of most popular bridges for committing suicide, by putting $1.4 million in her supplemental budget proposal to begin building an 8-foot suicide-prevention fence on the historic landmark.

More than 40 people are known to have jumped off the bridge in the past decade. Most years, three or four people jump, although nine leapt to their deaths in 2006, tying 1972 as the worst year on record for known suicides from the Aurora Bridge.

The Seattle bridge has the second-highest rate for bridge suicides in the nation, Gregoire said, but doesn't come close to No. 1, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, where about 25 people are known to jump to their deaths each year.

"Installation of an 8-foot suicide-prevention fence with illumination on the Aurora Avenue Bridge will help make the bridge safer and can help prevent suicides," the governor said in budget documents released Tuesday.

She said she plans to put additional dollars in her budget proposal for the 2009-2011 budget period, and estimated the total cost of the project would be $7.5 million.

The half-mile bridge built in 1931 carries State Route 99 over water at its highest point, 155 feet above the channel connecting Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal north of downtown. But many jumpers fall on solid ground, sometimes onto a parking lot in a former warehouse district that has morphed into a trendy area full of office buildings, shops and restaurants.

The people who work under the bridge or live in the neighborhood should get the credit for the fence money in the governor's supplemental budget, said Stan Suchan, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Transportation.

"That project largely exists because of community involvement. The community is passionate about this," Suchan said. "I do share their concerns and I'm eager for the project to move forward."

The project is complicated by the bridge's status as a national historic landmark, and by the fact that the steel-truss bridge carries 45,000 vehicles a day on one of the main north-south routes through Seattle and requires careful, frequent safety inspections, he said.

A year ago, his department worked with city officials and suicide-prevention experts to install six emergency phones and 18 signs on the bridge, for suicide deterrence. The signs encourage people to seek help instead of jumping.

Measuring the impact of those measures is not possible, said L.J. Eddy, the head of the Seattle Police Department's hostage negotiation team.

"Nobody can say, 'We saw an increase in calls or a decrease in jumpers,"' Eddy said a month after the phones and signs were installed. "And we can't measure the potential suicide person, who sees the signs and turns around."

Suchan said people in his department have already done some research concerning the fence, so the governor would have a good estimate to put in her budget, but the design and planning work will require the dollars she has earmarked.

Government officials had previously ruled out a suicide-prevention fence because it would complicate the inspection process. Because of its height and location between two hills, the bridge is inspected by a special truck that dangles a bucket carrying the inspector over the railing. Building up the height of the railings could hamper those inspections, Seattle transportation officials have said.

Transportation planners will need to find a solution that allows inspections, while still preventing suicides, Suchan said.

"It appears that fencing is the best solution," at least in the Washington Department of Transportation's opinion, he said, adding that the dollars the governor put in her budget match his department's proposal.

The bridge has been altered several times in previous decades - to improve pedestrian safety and to make it more safe in earthquakes.
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