After suicide of 15-year-old girl, city ponders barriers on Vista Bridge

By David Stabler, The Oregonian, June 7, 2013

Vista Bridge

Vista Bridge

A 15-year-old Beaverton girl jumped to her death from Vista Bridge on Wednesday, the third suicide from the historic span this year. That equals the highest number of Vista Bridge suicides in any year in the past decade.

The 1926 bridge, which spans MAX tracks and busy Southwest Jefferson Street, has long been called “Suicide Bridge.” The public nature and increasing numbers of suicides at the bridge have prompted Mayor Charlie Hales, city Commissioner Steve Novick and other city officials to explore the issue of erecting architecturally appropriate barriers to impede suicides.

Based on design discussions with the State Historic Preservation Office, which must approve any changes to the bridge because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, barriers could cost $2.5 to $3 million, said David O’Longaigh, who manages bridges for Portland’s Transportation Bureau.

Finding that amount won’t be easy, given a $21.5 million shortfall in the city budget.

“The mayor would like to see some prevention methods taken,” said Matthew Robinson, a policy assistant in Hales’ office. “But it’s an issue of finding the funding. We’ve explored several sources and continue to look.”

This week, Hales put Novick in charge of the city’s Transportation Bureau, which manages Vista Bridge.

“We should have barriers on Vista Bridge,” Novick said. “Unfortunately, suicide, to a shocking extent, is a matter of convenience. Barriers would save lives.”

Research on bridges in Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C., shows that barriers significantly lower the number of suicides.

But the Transportation Bureau already faces a backlog of maintenance for roads and other projects, Novick said.

“I totally agree we should have barriers on Vista Bridge,” Novick said. “It’s a critical need among a lot of other critical needs. I can’t say right now when and how we’re going to get the money.”

Novick said he has talked to two other city commissioners who think putting barriers on Vista Bridge is “a high priority.”

The trade-offs are not easy, he said.

Among several design possibilities, the State Historical Preservation Office liked a railing of vertical steel bars, 6 inches apart, rising 8 feet above the bridge’s railing, O’Longaigh said. The current railing is in disrepair and would need to be rebuilt and reinforced to hold the steel railing, he said.

Glass panels, another option, would be difficult to keep clean and could become “a palette for vandalism,” he said.

Federal funding could be available, but not for many years, he said. A three-year funding cycle ended last November, so the next cycle wouldn’t begin until 2015. Actual money might not come through until 2018 or 2020, he said.

Bonnie and Kenneth Kahn, who work below the bridge, are pushing the city to install barriers. The Kahns are  forming a nonprofit to raise awareness and money for barriers. Kenneth Kahn was glad to hear of the city’s support.

“It means the city has the vision to tackle a taboo subject and come out on the side of caring,” Kahn said. “This is an infrastructure problem as important as creating new bridges such as the Sellwood Bridge. But while we’re building new structures, we still have to maintain and improve the precious structures that help define so much of what is Portland.”