The Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge — which recently witnessed three suicides in as many weeks — has sparked debate within the local community over how to best prevent suicide attempts.

Since it was built in 1963, 50 people have jumped to their death off the bridge overlooking the Santa Ynez Valley, making it the deadliest stretch of highway in the county. Six people have committed suicide within the last year, three of them within the last two weeks. The increased number of suicides, up from an average of one death per year over much of its history, has fanned increased pressure among officials to install some sort of preventative measure on the bridge.

In November 2005, a committee was formed to look into possible solutions, and in June 2007, Caltrans — California’s transportation department — held a public meeting to inform the community about a proposal to erect physical prevention barriers along the bridge.

The project has garnered the support of several local agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept., Family Service Agency and the Glendon Association. State Assemblyman Pedro Nava and former 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone have also expressed support for the proposal.

Caltrans approved the proposal to build the 10-foot barrier in June at a public information meeting.

Dr. Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association — a local non-profit that conducts research and provides services related to mental health — said the proposed barrier would be an effective means to prevent suicide.

“At other sites whenever they put up barriers, the suicide rate has dropped to zero and it has gone down in the surrounding area,” Firestone said.

However, the project has faced opposition from the group Friends of Cold Spring Canyon Bridge, which recently filed a civil suit against Caltrans to block the approval of the barrier. Founding member Marc McGinnes, a former professor at UCSB, cited Caltrans’ failure to properly research the alternatives as cause for the suit.

“We said, well, barriers 10 feet tall on the most beautiful steel arch bridge in the United States, that would destroy the experience of beauty, the awe-inspiring view that one gets here,” McGinnes, whose group has instead proposed a “human barriers” plan, which would include surveillance cameras and call boxes, said. “We saw there was an intent to exclude environmentalists and historic preservation people until the decision was made whether or not to spend the money to put the barriers up.”

McGinnes said that the project was originally supposed to cost around $600,000, but the actual costs are expected to reach closer to $4 million.

McGinnes cited a recent study conducted by UCSB political science professor Garrett Glasgow that concludes physical barriers are not an effective means to prevent suicide attempts.

“We’ve been accused of putting beauty above all,” McGinnes said. “We have a better way of actually designing a measure on the bridge that would have a better chance to save lives. Ours is a guarantee. Something like a cold, hard steel barrier is not reassuring the person that their life is worth saving.”

Both sides, however, have argued over which proposition has the most community support behind it.

“This [physical barrier] project has never enjoyed significant public support,” McGinnes said. “This is what first caught my attention because when somebody says this is what the public thinks I go, wow, wait a second. What basis do you have to make that claim?”

Firestone, on the other hand, said that when Caltrans published the project on its Web site and opened it to public comment, over 90 percent of the comments were in favor of the proposal.

“There are not equal size groups in size or knowledge,” Firestone said. “The people who are against the barrier are the environmentalists or political scientists. They’re not people with any experience in mental health, public health or suicide prevention.”