On July 15, 2005, two local law enforcement officers watched as 18-year-old Andrew Popp leaned backwards over the edge of the Cold Springs Bridge on Highway 154 and fell the 420 feet to his death.

Once a star player on the San Marcos High School basketball team, Popp’s decision to kill himself sent shockwaves through the Santa Barbara community. Soon after his death, CalTrans embarked on the process of making Cold Springs Bridge – the number one location to commit suicide on the Central Coast – safer. Nearly three years later, the project is flooded in controversy as the opposing sides debate CalTrans’ plan to install physical suicide prevention barriers on the 45-year-old bridge.

Although the project was originally unopposed, controversy arose after Garrett Glasgow, an associate political science professor at UCSB, released a statistical study in September 2007 arguing that there was no evidence to suggest suicide barriers on large bridges actually save lives. The barriers, Glasgow said, simply divert suicides elsewhere.

Additionally, the project’s estimated price tag has more than quadrupled since CalTrans initially suggested the barriers would cost about $600,000. In response to the increased price, nearly a dozen local organizations, including the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, have declared their opposition to the plan. According to public records, the estimated cost in now over $2.8 million.

Ultimately, however, the decision lies in the hands of CalTrans. The Cold Springs Bridge is located on a California State Highway and as such it is under the sole jurisdiction of the California Dept. of Transportation. If the barriers are eventually installed, it will be the first time such preventative barriers will have been placed on a California state highway.

Saving Lives?

Central to the debate over Cold Springs Bridge is whether or not suicide prevention barriers actually save lives. When CalTrans originally proposed the project, they listed ‘saving lives’ as a primary goal. However, in the Environmental Impact Report released last week, saving lives had been removed from their list of goals.

“[CalTrans] has something in there that says ‘maybe it will work’, but it doesn’t say they will save lives anymore,” Glasgow said. “They started by telling people that [physical barriers] would save people and that’s why I did my research, but instead of confronting [the findings] they just dropped it.”

The citizen-run activist group Friends of the Bridge – whose sole concern is preserving the aesthetic and historic attributes of the Cold Springs Bridge – decided to pitch an proposal to CalTrans last year that avoided the issue of barriers altogether.

“We’ve presented information that [CalTrans] reports are flawed and that barriers don’t save lives,” said Marc McGinnes, a retired UCSB environmental studies professor and active member of Friends of the Bridge. “We continue to call upon CalTrans to abandon this flawed barriers proposal and pursue the alternatives.”

The alternative would have cameras and call boxes installed on the bridge, in addition to a speaker box that would emit a voice designed to console the troubled individual. McGinnes also stressed the importance of not arresting the potential jumper, saying that the peace officer’s job is to assist, not apprehend.

The alternative plan offered by Friends of the Bridge is nearly an exact copy of the plan submitted to and accepted by the New York State Bridge Authority, which controls five major bridges in the New York City area.

Despite this, the Glendon Association, a local mental health institute that helped CalTrans design the current proposal, insists that barriers are the best choice. Lisa Firestone, research and education director for the Glendon Association, said it is a misnomer that barriers do not save lives – clearly, she noted, they physically stop people from plummeting to their death.

“When barriers are put up on bridges, the suicide rate drops to zero at that location and the suicide rate in the surrounding area goes down,” Firestone said.

Firestone said the act of suicide is often impulsive, and by restricting access to the means of suicide, the impulse will often pass and that individual will go on to live a full life.

Glasgow, the author of the statistical report that first sparked the debate, said that while suicide rates have declined in communities with suicide barriers on large bridges, the rate has also dropped in communities without barriers.

“The suicide rate has been going down across the whole country,” Glasgow said. “The suicide rate went down by 40 percent in [Washington] DC over the last 20 years, where there are barriers, and it has gone down 60 percent in San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge – the number one spot to kill yourself in the country – doesn’t have barriers.”

According to CalTrans spokesperson Colin Jones, for the agency, the whole issue comes down restricting the number of deaths on a state highway.

“People were dying on our bridge, and the fact of the matter is if you get killed, whether by an accident or by suicide, it’s happening on our bridge,” Jones said. “We looked at a lot of things, including cameras, and the best solution we believe is a physical barrier that will make it difficult for them to jump off the bridge. … It’s one of the most cost effective programs we have. Over 44 people have jumped off that bridge since it was opened, and if we can prevent those suicides, we will.”

Dollars and Cents

Originally estimated to cost $605,000, the physical barriers proposal now has an estimated cost of $2.8 million dollars, according to McGinnes. Additionally, McGinnes has asserted that CalTrans was aware of the actual cost from the beginning, but purposefully withheld that information.

“They originally stated [it would cost] $605,000,” McGinnes said. “That was done at a public hearing in July 2007. But we know, from looking at the public records, that they knew at the time that the budget really was $2.821 million. They knew that, but they are trying to sell something here and they were trying to make it look like a bargain.

“[CalTrans] has been mishandling and concealing information. That is what I call a stealth project,” he added.

While admitting that the estimated costs have risen, Jones denied any prior knowledge of the final price and said that CalTrans had never engaged in any “stealthy” behavior.

“It is untrue [that CalTrans knew of the expenses],” Jones said. “How can you know completely how much something will cost before you go through the complete design process? We tried to estimate as best we can, but this is not uncommon for projects to become more expensive. We were not trying to be stealthy.”

Jones also reiterated that the issue is more about saving lives than money.

“The main message is this is the ultimate safety project,” he said. “If it was your mother or child out there, wouldn’t you like to spend the money to save them, whether it is one million or two million dollars?”

Ultimately, it was the sharp rise in expenses that lead many local organizations to second-guess CalTrans’ decisions. On May 8, the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association wrote a letter to CalTrans voicing their opposition to the plan.

“SBCTA would rather see our taxpayer dollars used to pay for putting more officers on the street and/or by providing our existing officers the wages and benefits they deserve as opposed to using these finite resources to build fencing and other barriers that are not only aesthetically unappealing, but are ultimately ineffective at stopping suicides from occurring,” the letter read.

The SBCTA is the latest in a long list of organizations that have publicly expressed their opposition to the program. Others include the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Santa Barbara County Action Network and the Pearl Chase Society.

Brooks Firestone, 3rd District Supervisor and member of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, said that while SBCAG originally supported the barriers proposal, its support was given prior to any opposition and prior to any additions to the cost.

“I’m just glad I don’t have to make a vote up or down on this,” Firestone said.

CalTrans does have many supporters, however. These include the Glendon Association, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Dept. and the California Highway Patrol, among others.

Naturally, with so many backers on each side, the debate is still ongoing.