Affirmational stickers have been attached to the railings on the West Eighth Street bridge over the Tumwater Truck Route in Port Angeles near the location where people have committed suicide by leaping from the span. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Affirmational stickers have been attached to the railings on the West Eighth Street bridge over the Tumwater Truck Route in Port Angeles near the location where people have committed suicide by leaping from the span. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles City Council discusses long- and short-term measures to prevent bridge suicides

PORT ANGELES — An 8- to 9-foot curved chain-link fence, a vertical wire mesh fence of the same height or some combination of the two — those are three long-term options for safety barriers on the Eighth Street bridges that the Port Angeles City Council will consider.

Short-term strategies to dissuade more people from attempting suicide on the 100-foot-tall spans include temporary fencing anchored by large weights, construction fencing connected to the concrete bridges or closing the sidewalks to pedestrians.

“In regards to the temporary solution, everything is on the table,” Deputy Director of Operations James Burke told City Council members Tuesday.

The seven-member council voted unanimously to add Eighth Street bridge barriers to the 2018-23 capital facilities and transportation improvement plans.

The action makes the city eligible for state funding to help pay for safety improvements to the bridges.

Seven people have jumped to their deaths from one of the two bridges since they reopened with shorter 4-foot-, 6-inch railings in 2009, including three since June. The old bridges had 7-foot, 8-inch fences that were added after they were built.

The long-term options for safety barriers are expected to take one year to implement, city officials said. No timeline was given for when a temporary solution would be in place.

The estimated cost of an inward-curving chain link fence is $1 million. The estimated cost of a wire mesh architectural fence is $2.1 million, city officials said.

The mesh would have smaller openings that would prevent people from climbing, which would eliminate the need for curved fencing over the sidewalks, city officials said.

“Placing netting under the bridge is not recommended because it would be very costly to attach a concrete structure and to maintain and clean debris,” Public Works Director Craig Fulton said in a memo to the council.

“Furthermore, the ability to retrieve a person from the netting would be dangerous and may incur city liability in the event of a netting failure.”

In response to public outcry that followed the most recent suicide — 15-year-old Ashley Wishart died Nov. 13 — the City Council decided to add permanent barriers to the capital facilities plan.

In related action from Tuesday’s meeting, the council passed an ordinance to authorize a donation policy to accept contributions for bridge barriers.

The city has been accepting donations for the barriers since Nov. 21. Donations can be made at the cashier’s office at City Hall or mailed to the city at 321 E. Fifth St.

“I will tell you, it’s greatly inspiring to see the care and compassion and the overall generosity that we’ve seen from this community to date, ” Community and Economic Development Director Nathan West told the council.

Prior to the meeting, the city had received four donations totaling $11,055, including one donation of $10,000.

“In addition to that, late this afternoon, just prior to the council meeting, we received a pledge from a very generous family of $100,000 towards the barriers on the bridge,” West said.

“The reason that they did a pledge rather than a donation is because they very much want to ensure that it moves towards the actual construction of the project, but they’re prepared to move forward as soon as we are prepared to move forward.”

More donations were received during the 4½-hour meeting as multiple speakers testified in support of bridge barriers.

Racheal Johnson, who organized a protest for taller railings after Wishart jumped to her death from the Valley Creek bridge, told the council that she had raised $354 for the bridge barriers through a bake sale and $30 in a raffle.

“I’ll match you dollar for dollar,” Mayor Patrick Downie said, drawing applause from the overflow crowd.

Monte Smith, a consultant with Olympia-based Sargent Engineers, Inc., which has inspected the Eighth Street bridges in the past, was on hand to discuss preliminary options for bridge barriers.

The new safety barriers must be lightweight and allow air to pass through to reduce wind load, Smith said.

“This particular bridge was designed for the particular barrier that’s on it,” Smith said of the twin spans over Valley and Tumwater creeks.

“We have to be careful that we’re not adding a lot of weight to the bridge to cause a problem with that.”

Smith added that the city must avoid tripping hazards on the sidewalks while a temporary barrier is in place.

“We don’t want to create hazards where we’ve got temporary rails falling over on people,” he said.

“We also have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means that we have to provide at least four feet of walking distance on the sidewalk.”

Burke said city staff would bring back “solid short- and long-term options” for the next council meeting Dec. 19.

Acting on a suggestion made during public comment, Councilwoman Sissi Bruch suggested that staff research blue lighting as a possible way to alleviate mental distress.

Councilman Lee Whetham suggested as a possible short-term solution closing the south sidewalks on the Eighth Street bridges and adding temporary fencing on the north side. Temporary sidewalks would allow safe crossing to the north.

“This could be a possible solution in order to hold our initial costs down,” Whetham said.


Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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