By ARDEN BASTIA Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr. and other advocates are championing legislation to erect protective barriers along the sides of three bridges in the state, as a deterrent for anyone contemplating taking their own life, however, the
Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr. and other advocates are championing legislation to erect protective barriers along the sides of three bridges in the state, as a deterrent for anyone contemplating taking their own life, however, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has yet to support the plans.
On Wednesday, Feb. 24, the bill went before the House Finance Committee and was “well-received” said Rep. Solomon in an interview on Tuesday.
The bill stipulates that the Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), add a safety barrier or safety netting on the Mount Hope Bridge, the Claiborne Pell Bridge and the Verrazzano Bridge on or before Jan. 1, 2023.
“We had a great discussion, and committee members heard from people who had been affected, such as losing loved ones, family members, or witnessing those that have taken their own life,” Solomon said. He cited his own personal experience, of losing a friend to suicide, to emphasize the importance of passing a bill like this.
“I want to get the process going,” he said. The bill will now move forward into the engineering process, working alongside the RITBA and the RI Department of Transportation. “We’ll try to find some middle ground as to accomplishing the purpose of this bill, like finding the funding for it, and doing what we can to get it past the finish line.”
Bryan Ganley, a founder of Bridging the Gap for Safety & Healing, is an advocate for suicide prevention. Bridging the Gap formed in 2015 to pressure the state and the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority to put prevention barriers on state bridges. The coalition also serves as a support group for survivors or those who have lost loved ones.
“I’ve been working on this barrier legislation for over 30 years,” said Ganley in an interview Tuesday. Ganley became a suicide prevention volunteer with The Samaritans of Rhode Island in 1981. “In suicide prevention, the first thing you’re taught is to take the ability away.”
Ganley and a dozen others testified at the hearing, sharing their experiences.
“We were all in support of the bill except for the Turnpike and Bridge Authority,” he said. “The argument is that the bridge won’t hold the weight, but putting jersey barriers on the bridge aren’t an issue. I think if it can handle jersey barriers, it can certainly handle prevention barriers.”
In a written testimony, Lori Silveira, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority said the organization “has not taken a position on the bill” but offered the testimony “to address some of the considerations.”
Silveira highlighted the measures already in place on state bridges, for example, signs posted for the Samaritans of Rhode Island, E-911, and East Bay Community Action, as well as “a sophisticated, interactive camera and intercom system that will detect, at the earliest opportunity, the presence of an unauthorized individual on a bridge” that will go live in the coming weeks.
But Ganley and other advocates insist that this isn’t enough, and the RITBA needs to take more responsibility.
“It’s a known fact that suicide prevention barriers are the number one way to stop jumpers. Cameras are only supplemental. It can be done; it’s being done everywhere. My question is, why isn’t anything been done already,” said Ganley. “Many suicides can’t be predicted or prevented, but suicides from bridges is something we can predict and actively prevent.”
Solomon anticipates receiving federal funds to support the cost of the project, which he estimates to be around $3.5 million.
“People keep throwing around the number for the Golden Gate Bridge, but that’s not the same for our state,” he said. The San Francisco bridge barriers cost roughly $220 million.
In her testimony, Silveira also pointed out, “altering the structure of bridges that are 92 years old, 52 years old, and nearly 30 years old, respectively, requires careful study. Any kind of a fence, steel mesh net, or other barrier could affect the integrity and safety of the bridge on which it is installed.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Silveira said these load bearing studies and wind studies “take time” but she is unsure about the exact timeline, “although some estimates have been made.”
Dr. Laura Weinstock, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, also testified at the hearing.
“I can speak to some of the unique challenges we face here in RI,” Weinstock wrote in her testimony. “These bridges support our movement across the state, but also provide enhanced access to one method of suicide that is especially lethal and hard to reverse once attempted. The installation of bridge barriers and critical.”
In Rhode Island, there is one suicide every three days, and it is the 12th leading cause of death in the state. For certain subgroups, particularly youth and young adults, suicide is a top 5 leading cause of death.
“This is so huge that this bill is going forward,” said Ganley. “I see the people that come in who have lost loved ones, you can’t turn your back to it.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and is available all hours of the day. To reach the Crisis Text Line, text “CONNECT” to 741741.