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Sunshine Skyway bridge to get suicide prevention barrier

The 8-foot-tall steel netting will run along about a mile and a half of the iconic span that for decades has been a magnet for people seeking to take their own lives.

Editor’s note: This story includes descriptions of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.

After his stepson Chris jumped from the Sunshine Skyway bridge a little more than a year ago, Rob Rivard decided to scatter his ashes from the iconic span.

Rivard resolved to wait, however, until the state built some sort of barrier on the bridge to prevent others from taking their own lives there. He contacted state officials and urged them to take action.

“I just felt if I waited, I could tell him, ‘Something positive came out of your death,’” said Rivard, of Tampa.

He could have that closure soon.

After years of pleas for a barrier to deter people from jumping some 200 feet to their deaths in Tampa Bay, the Florida Department of Transportation will construct steel netting along a roughly mile and a half stretch of the Skyway. The netting will extend vertically 8 feet from the top of the bridge’s concrete barriers, making it difficult for anyone to climb over them.

Construction is slated to begin early this summer and will take a few months.

The goal is to remove the Skyway from the ranks of the top four deadliest bridges in America, officials said. Despite measures such as increased law enforcement patrols and more surveillance cameras, the number of suicides each year has continued to trend upward. In 2018, a record 18 people died after jumping from the bridge.

“The top three bridges are either studying it or already doing something, so it was time to do this,” said Jim Jacobsen, district structures maintenance engineer for the Transportation Department. “In spite of our other activities, the numbers were still increasing in the last few years so we started to look at what other bridge owners are doing worldwide.”

Related: As record year ends, Florida studying suicide prevention barriers for Sunshine Skyway bridge

• • •

Transportation officials searched the globe for design ideas and technology that would offer a minimalist solution to a problem that has vexed the current bridge since it opened in 1987.

One of the most important requirements: The design had to allow access to the truck-mounted booms used to inspect and maintain the underside of the bridge. In recent years, the state has switched to larger trucks, making a vertical barrier more feasible, Jacobsen said.

The barrier must also be light because the bridge’s main segment, which features a 1,200-foot opening between the two towers, won’t hold a lot of additional weight, Jacobsen said.

“For a brick structure, maybe a wrought iron system could work,” he said. “But at the Skyway, the theme is light, airy, linear and thin.”

A plexiglass barrier would be heavy, expensive, add too much wind resistance and eventually deteriorate in the sun.

So officials settled on the stainless steel, diamond-patterned netting used on the Eiffel Tower, the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York and on the deadliest bridge in America for suicides, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

On the Golden Gate, the netting extends horizontally below the bridge. That sort of design on the Skyway would hinder the inspection trucks and extend too far below the bridge into the shipping channel, Jacobsen said.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is seen Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg. The Florida Department of Transportation will construct steel netting along a roughly mile and a half stretch of the Skyway. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

The Skyway system will feature vertical supports attached to the water side of the bridge’s existing 32-inch high cement barriers. The netting will extend 8 feet from the top of the barriers, creating a nearly 11-foot high obstacle. The netting will extend about 8,000 feet, to a point where the bridge is roughly 50 feet above the water.

The design of the steel netting makes it difficult to climb and easy for wind to flow through, and the color of the steel should blend well with the grays and blues of the water and sky yet still be visible to birds, Jacobsen said. The flexibility that makes it difficult to climb will also make the netting less dangerous to birds that fly into it.

“At the top of the bridge, we don’t see a lot of bird activity like you see on the fishing pier,” he said. “We don’t foresee that as an issue.”

The design has been approved by Florida’s State Historic Preservation Office, which must sign off on any physical modification to the bridge.

“We think when you first drive by it, you’ll see it there,” Jacobsen said. “The next time you drive it, you’ll be looking through it.”

The budgeted cost for the project is $3 million. Construction could start as early as June. A request for bids for the project will go out next week, and the selected contractor has 120 days to complete the project, not including days lost to inclement weather. Construction will not require lane closures because crews will be able to use the 12-foot shoulder.

The Transportation Department is also testing new surveillance camera technology on the bridge that alerts traffic control workers when a vehicle stops on the span and someone gets out. That system will be fully operational later this year.

Truck-mounted booms like this one shown working on the Sunshine Skyway last month are used to inspect and maintain the bridge. The booms will still be able to operate over the the vertical suicide prevention barrier planned for the Skyway, Florida of Department of Transportation officials said. [Florida Department of Transportation]

• • •

The Skyway has attracted suicidal people since the 1960s, when previous versions of the bridge spanned Tampa Bay. Records show suicides began to increase when the current bridge, with its cables forming twin triangles visible for miles, opened in 1987.

Since then, at least 248 people have died by suicide by jumping from the span and overall activity on the bridge — the number of suicides and saves — has generally trended upward, especially in the last decade, Highway Patrol records show. In each of the last four years, the bridge saw an average of one suicide per month. Last year saw a dozen suicides and 15 attempts.

In a Transportation Department study conducted about 20 years ago, a number of concerns were raised about netting — that it would impede the maintenance trucks, might fling jumpers back onto the bridge and into traffic, ensnare trash and wildlife, and mar the bridge’s iconic appearance.

So officials took other measures instead. In 1999, the state installed six crisis hotline call boxes that connect with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay as soon as someone picks one up. A state trooper patrols the bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a quicker response to potential attempts.

Surveillance cameras have been in place for years, but their numbers have grown and the technology has improved. Last year, the Transportation Department began testing the smart camera system and also added placards with messages of hope along the bridge.

Jacobsen said officials have not yet decided whether the call boxes will remain in place after the barrier is built.

Gary King’s son Jason jumped from the Skyway in 2012. Since then, he has wondered why the state hasn’t built a barrier.

“It’s a complete blessing to hear that the state is finally going to address that," King said. “It will make an enormous difference.”

After his son died, Rob Rivard lobbied a number of elected officials for a barrier including Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and state Sen. Tom Lee. Rivard was encouraged when transportation officials announced last year that they were studying the issue, and he said he’s “ecstatic" to hear the state is taking action that will save lives and help his family.

“Once that bridge is addressed, I can have peace with it and our family can start moving on and trying to deal with it,” he said. “You’re never going to heal from it."

Rob Rivard holds a photo of his stepson Chris Machesney, who died by suicide in November 2018 when he jumped from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Rivard, of Tampa, has pushed state officials to install barriers on the bridge, which saw a record number of suicides in 2018, and said this week he is "ecstatic" to hear the barriers will be installed this year. [MONICA HERNDON | TIMES]