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Case Study - California

Suicide Prevention and Historic Preservation on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge

Description of Undertaking

Since its construction in 1963, approximately 45 people have committed suicide by jumping from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge to the rocky canyon below. While not used as frequently for suicide as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge, in Santa Barbara County, California, does claim the highest concentration of such fatalities in the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 5 (which includes the central coastal counties of Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and has been a major source of concern to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. Not only are lives lost when individuals jump from the bridge, there is considerable risk to team members on the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue recovery teams who must traverse difficult terrain to recover the human remains.

Based on consultations with the public and a multi-agency Cold Springs Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee, Caltrans proposed construction of a fence-type barrier along the length of the bridge with funding from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Consulting parties and the public are divided on whether a suicide fence will have too great an impact on the significant characteristics of the historic bridge, and whether a barrier is needed at this location. Parties opposing a fence-type barrier argue that call boxes and human intervention are as effective as physical barriers for reducing the suicide rate and would avoid damaging the structural and visual integrity of the historic bridge.

Affected Historic Property

The largest steel arch bridge in California, and one of the first in the country to be built entirely of all-welded steel components, the 1963 Cold Springs Canyon Bridge is considered of exceptional significance for its engineering and architectural design. The structure is significant for its type, period, and method of construction as an important example of bridge design and engineering that demonstrates a maturation of steel arch bridge design and welded steel technology in California, and represents a high aesthetic quality of contemporary design from its period.

Analysis of Consultation and Agreement

Caltrans has assumed responsibility for both National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and Section 106 review on FHWA projects in the state of California. Under the authority of Sections 6004 and 6005 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), FHWA delegated this authority to Caltrans. FHWA retains auditing and monitoring responsibilities, but does not participate in individual project reviews, except for projects specifically excluded from the assumption. Caltrans is, therefore, effectively the lead federal agency for this undertaking.

Caltrans designed the proposed build alternatives for the suicide barrier in a manner that would minimize the effect of the project on the historic bridge by following the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for treatment of historic properties as much as possible. Its staff examined other bridges in California, throughout the US, and elsewhere in the world to assess potential designs for the barrier on this bridge.  

Although Caltrans coordinated with State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) staff in developing this project, California SHPO Wayne Donaldson decided not to sign the MOA submitted for his signature because of objections raised by citizens who believed a non-barrier alternative would be more effective and had not been considered. Parties opposed to a barrier included, among others, representatives of the Santa Barbara County Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, and individuals opposed to altering the bridge. In order to assist with resolving these issues, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) became a consulting party and agreed to work with the SHPO and Caltrans to examine concerns that had been raised. After reviewing the comments received from parties with concerns and meeting with Caltrans to review the purpose and need for the project and other possible barrier designs, the ACHP and SHPO agreed that Caltrans could move forward with design of a fence-type barrier that minimizes the visual impacts to the historic bridge.

The resulting Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was executed among Caltrans, the SHPO, and the ACHP on March 23, 2009. The agreement requires Caltrans to conduct a feasibility study on an arc-type fence barrier proposed by SHPO, which would reduce obstruction of the view to persons driving over the bridge. The MOA also requires photo documentation of the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge according to Historic American Engineering Standards (HAER) standards prior to construction of the barrier, development of an illustrated booklet about the historic bridge for local organizations, and a three-panel interpretive exhibit to be designed by Caltrans.

Lessons Learned

The Section 106 review process was designed to help Federal agency officials resolve conflicts between project goals and preservation concerns through consultation. Located in rural Santa Barbara County, the proposed suicide barrier project nonetheless had substantial public interest, with members of the Cold Spring Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee seeking the most effective suicide deterrent available; while others opposed construction of a physical barrier that would alter the important scenic, aesthetic, and historic values of the bridge. While preservation of the historic character and views to and from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge are of great importance, it is difficult to argue that these historic values are of greater importance than trying to save the lives of potential suicide victims. No compromise or middle ground was found to resolve this conflict and parties opposed to the suicide barrier remain unhappy with the outcome, but in the final analysis, the ACHP and SHPO agreed to a barrier design that minimizes the impact to the bridge.  

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Updated August 17, 2009

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