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Case Study - California

Bridge District and Caltrans Propose Suicide Net on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Description of Undertaking

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District (Bridge District), in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), proposes to install a physical suicide barrier at the public walkways on the Golden Gate Bridge which carries State Route 101 between San Francisco and Marin counties. More than 1300 people have committed suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco since its construction in 1937. In just 2005, an estimated 23 people took their lives by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, and another 58 people who were contemplating jumping but were stopped through intervention.

Caltrans has assumed responsibility for both 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), Caltrans has been delegated this authority by FHWA. 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, the lead federal agency for both suicide bridge projects.

Affected Historic Properties

The Golden Gate Bridge at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, is one of the best known, internationally recognized and frequently visited suspension bridges in the world. The Golden Gate Bridge is individually eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), including its contributing features: the Round House Gift Center and the Toll Plaza Undercrossing. The Bridge is also a contributing element of the Presidio of San Francisco NHL district.

Analysis of Consultation and Agreement

The historical and aesthetic importance of the Golden Gate Bridge created significant challenges for balancing the public safety concerns and historic preservation. Public interest in the proposed suicide barrier is high. During the public comment period during summer 2008, approximately half of the 4000 online respondents to the Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Assessment preferred that no physical suicide barrier be constructed on the bridge. Nevertheless, with the large number of suicides occurring annually at this location, the Golden Gate Bridge Board selected a net type barrier as its preferred alternative. The proposed net system would extend horizontally from the bridge, hanging 20 feet below the sidewalk, covered with stainless steel cable netting. Other local agencies, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), San Francisco Planning Department, San Francisco Bay Trail, and the Marin Mental Health Board all agreed that a net type barrier was preferable.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) formally initiated Section 106 consultation with the SHPO and ACHP on December 15, 2008 and on December 19, 2008, the ACHP notified Caltrans that it would participate in consultation to resolve adverse effects. In addition to the ACHP and SHPO, Caltrans involved in consultation the Bridge District, the GGNRA, Docomomo - US Northern California Chapter, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage. Several of the consulting parties opposed the construction of a suicide barrier because of the effect it would have on the aesthetics and historic character of the bridge. A number of non-physical deterrents are already in use at the Golden Gate Bridge including emergency counseling telephones, public safety patrols, employee training and surveillance cameras. Although the Bridge District and Caltrans were also concerned with protecting the historic character of the Bridge, they believed a net type barrier could be designed that would not alter the views experienced while crossing the bridge, and would minimize the visual intrusion while viewing the bridge from land or the bay.

The final, executed, MOA incorporates a design modification proposed by Wayne Donaldson, the California SHPO. The final barrier will have a supporting system of international orange (to match the color of the existing bridge) and an unpainted stainless steel net. To reduce the visual impact at the northern end, a vertical barrier will be installed along one portion of the bridge deck: a 300 foot length of the North Anchorage Housing. The final MOA also includes the following mitigation measures:

  • Caltrans shall complete documentation of the Golden Gate Bridge (previously started) in accordance with Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) guidelines prior to initiating construction;
  • The Bridge District will complete and submit a National Historic Landmark nomination for the Golden Gate Bridge to the NHL Program;
  • Caltrans will produce an educational brochure with information on the historic elements of the bridge and the need for the barrier installation; and will provide copies of “The Golden Gate Bridge Report of the Chief Engineer, Volume II” (2007) to libraries and repositories in the area;
  • Caltrans will install interpretive signs or display panels at the Round House Gift Center and the Vista Point; and
  • Caltrans will ensure the protection of the bridge and the Fort Point Historic Site from incidental damage and ensure that any damage that may result will be repaired in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.

The MOA has been signed by Caltrans and the SHPO, and was executed by the ACHP on July 13, 2009. The National Trust for Historic Preservation declined to sign the agreement, but the other consulting parties did sign as concurring parties. They include the Bridge District, GGNRA, Docomomo, and San Francisco Architectural Heritage.

Lessons Learned

Consultation on this project went extremely well despite objections to the project from the public and Section 106 consulting parties. The large number of deaths each year by suicide makes for a compelling argument for the construction of a physical deterrent — despite the impact it will have on the historic character of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Section 106 consultation was successfully concluded, in large part, because of the detailed research on suicide behavior and deterrents conducted by the Bridge District and Caltrans, the excellent environmental documents they produced, and the willingness of the agencies to work with the Section 106 consulting parties in the design of the project.

Caltrans designed the project to minimize the visual impacts of the barrier on views both to and from the Golden Gate Bridge. A visual impact assessment included photo-simulations of how different alternatives would likely impact the visual qualities associated with the Bridge. The shape and structure of the bridge, and the importance of retaining the breath-taking views from the Golden Gate Bridge for both drivers and pedestrians crossing the bridge, were critical elements in the selection of a net-type barrier. Caltrans and the Bridge District were successful in convincing SHPO and ACHP that a suicide deterrent is needed at this site, and that a net type barrier is the least damaging to the historic character of the bridge.

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Posted July 22, 2009

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