New funding, technology could prompt suicide barrier for Sunshine Skyway

New federal funding rekindles the idea of installing a net on the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
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Each year, an average of eight people fall to their deaths from the Sunshine Skyway bridge, which soars up to 197 feet above Tampa Bay. That statistic makes it the deadliest so-called "suicide bridge" east of the Mississippi River.

Already this year, a person has committed suicide from the bridge.

But what if a barrier — such as a wide net in the belly of the bridge — had been in place?

The nation's deadliest suicide bridge, California's Golden Gate, is preparing to install such a net, thanks to newly available federal funds to pay for suicide barriers.

But no such plans are in the works for the Skyway.

"Are we looking at a netting or barrier system at this time?" said Kristin Carson, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Transportation. "We are watching and assessing what other states are doing."

Fifteen years ago, Carson said, a study on installing a Skyway suicide barrier was conducted, and the idea was rejected. Engineers questioned whether a net would fling jumpers back onto the bridge and into traffic, and there were concerns about it ensnaring trash and wildlife. Questions were also raised about how a net or barrier would affect the bridge's iconic appearance.

But technology has advanced, Carson said, so another study would be required to make a decision.

About two years ago, President Obama signed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century into law. Among its provisions, the transportation initiative made federal funds available for bridge safety nets.

It's the primary source of funding for the Golden Gate's $76 million installation, which will begin this fall and take about two years to complete.

"We consider it absolutely key in making this project move forward," said Dana Fehler, Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman. About $49 million of the project cost is coming from the federal government, and the rest is being paid by California mental health grants and the bridge district.

"Those within the suicide-prevention field were ecstatic, if not somewhat frustrated that it's taken so long," said William M. Schmitz Jr., American Association of Suicidology president.

"There's just so much evidence to substantiate the fact that these things save lives," he said of suicide barriers.

"The Sunshine bridge is gorgeous. But I think there's ways to make it safer without greatly detracting from the aesthetics."

Fehler acknowledged aesthetics too, adding that the Golden Gate kept the bridge's beauty in mind when planning the barrier.

"If you're driving or a pedestrian or a cyclist, you'll never know it's there," she said. "It's very low profile."

But the Golden Gate is just more than a mile and a half long, compared to the Skyway's nearly 4-mile stretch. The San Francisco bridge also has no notable incline, while the Skyway rises to a crest and comes down again, making the logistics of a barrier different and potentially more costly.

Seattle's George Washington Memorial Bridge, the nation's second-deadliest for suicides, installed an 8-foot suicide-prevention fence in 2011. The $5  million project has reduced suicides, said Seattle police Detective Drew Fowler. But it's not a perfect solution.

"If someone's, really, really, really determined, they can still get over the fence," Fowler said. "It just makes it very difficult."

San Diego's Coronado Bridge ranks third in the U.S. for suicides, but like the Skyway, it does not have physical barriers in place.

The Skyway relies on 15 cameras that scan different parts of the bridge at all times, linking the feed directly to the traffic management center in Tampa.

The cameras were recently upgraded, but fewer highway patrol deputies are available to respond to any trouble they may detect.

Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said officers used to monitor the bridge at all times, but no longer.

"We only miss a couple hours a day, and that's a funding issue," Gaskins said. "The current schedule has been consistent for at least three years."

The Skyway once was on the cutting edge of suicide prevention, installing six crisis phones on the bridge in 1999. Tampa's Crisis Center fields calls from those phones and offers suicide-prevention services.

"Tools like call boxes and suicide barriers serve as a last line of defense, but they are not the most effective deterrent to suicide," said Kenneth Gibson, Crisis Center spokesman. "We encourage anyone who is having thoughts of suicide to talk to someone about their feelings."

Gibson said those seeking confidential help can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-8255.

"The Skyway has been an issue for a long time," Gaskins said. "I'm not aware of any changes right now, whatsoever."

Contact Rachel Crosby at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.

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