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Advocates call for suicide prevention barriers on iconic R.I. bridges

Supporters hope the federal infrastructure plan will fund barriers on Newport Pell, Mount Hope, and Jamestown Verrazano bridges

The Newport Pell Bridge
The Newport Pell BridgeDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Bristol’s Bryan Ganley has been advocating for suicide-prevention barriers on local bridges since the 1980s, when a buddy of his took his own life.

Ganley served on a task force that worked on legislation that resulted in the installation of barriers on the Braga Bridge, which carries Interstate 195 over the Taunton River between Somerset and Fall River, Mass.

And now, as co-founder of Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing, he is pushing for suicide-prevention barriers of Rhode Island’s most iconic bridges – the Newport Pell, Mount Hope, and Jamestown Verrazano bridges.

The urgency is clear, Ganley said, noting that three people jumped from those bridges within the past couple of weeks. And an opportunity is here, he said, noting that President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would include $115 billion to repair and rebuild bridges, highways and roads.

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“I have lost many friends and family to suicide and including suicide from these bridges,” Ganley told the House Finance Committee. “Many suicides can’t be predicted or prevented, but suicides from bridges are something we can predict and actively prevent with the installation of suicide prevention barriers.”

 The Mount Hope Bridge
The Mount Hope BridgeLane Turner/Globe Staff

Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr. and Senator Louis P. DiPalma have introduced legislation that would direct the state Department of Transportation and the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to erect “a safety barrier and/or safety netting” on the three bridges by Jan. 1, 2023.

Solomon, a Warwick Democrat, said he lost a friend who jumped from the Pell Bridge. “Although I can’t bring my friend back, it’s about saving lives,” he said. “I believe we can save other lives.”

While national attention has focused on the $211 million cost of a suicide prevention project for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Solomon said the Rhode Island projects would cost much less. He noted that a suicide prevention barrier on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Lower Tampa Bay near St. Petersburg, Fla., is expected to cost $3.4 million.

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The recent suicides in Rhode Island show the barriers are needed, Solomon said. “My heart goes out to the family and friends and loved ones we have just recently lost,” he said, while encouraging anyone contemplating suicide to reach out to groups such as the Samaritans of Rhode Island.

“It’s about getting people the time they need to get assistance,” Solomon said, quoting the English poet John Donne: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, said suicide prevention barriers have been in place on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges on Cape Cod since the 1980s, and they have succeeded in reducing the number of suicides there. Now, he said, it’s time to install barriers on Rhode Island’s iconic bridges.

“We can wait no longer,” DiPalma said.

While barriers don’t address the root causes of suicide, they represent a needed step to try to prevent suicides, he said. And while cameras are being installed on some of the bridges, he said jumping from a bridge can happen in a matter of seconds, and barriers would provide “another tool in the toolbox.”

DiPalma said a fiscal note is being prepared to gauge how much the suicide prevention barriers would cost. And while the legislation is now being held for further study, it could still pass this year, he said.

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Lori C. Silveira, executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, said her organization remains neutral on the legislation but provided testimony addressing some of the considerations.

“The safety of these bridges for all users is of the utmost concern for us,” Silveira said in an interview. “We care about this, too. We care very much about this.”

The authority has installed signs on the bridges for the Samaritans of Rhode Island, E-911, and East Bay Community Action Program/Bristol Health Equity Zone, she said.

Silveira said installing barriers would require “careful study” since the Mount Hope Bridge is 92 years old, the Newport Pell Bridge is 52 years old, and the Jamestown Verrazano Bridge is 30 years old. “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,” she said. Studies to determine how barriers would affect the bridges could cost $1.5 million, she said.

“We are not presenting these as obstacles, just as considerations if it’s going to happen,” Silveira said. “We want the bridges to be safe, and we will work with the stakeholders.”

Ganley said the Turnpike and Bridge Authority placed concrete barriers on the Newport Pell Bridge after a series of head-on collisions, and he doubts the netting would be heavier than the barriers. “It’s time for them to take responsibility for their bridges,” he said.

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As a volunteer for the Samaritans of Rhode Island crisis hotline, Ganley said he is trained to first remove the means of suicide — something that a net could help do. Studies indicate potential jumpers do not seek alternative locations, he said.

“Our state motto is Hope,” Ganley told legislators. “It is time to make Hope a reality and suicide from Rhode Island’s bridges a thing of the past.”

You can reach the Samaritans of Rhode Island at (401) 272-4044 or toll free in Rhode Island at (800) 365-4044. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-Talk (8255).


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.