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DOT rules out nets or fences for Skyway

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Shortly after taking office last year, Gov. Jeb Bush prodded the state Department of Transportation to look into installing fences or safety nets on the Sunshine Skyway bridge to cut down on suicides.

But the DOT has ruled out both of those options and will try a different strategy: putting more state troopers and security cameras on the bridge.

The agency says fences along the sides of the Skyway would cost millions and could make the bridge less safe in high winds. DOT officials also have doubts about how effective nets below the bridge would be, although not everyone agrees with them.

"We don't know what would happen when somebody fell in the netting," said Marian Pscion, a DOT spokeswoman in Tampa. "Trash could build up there. You could have things trapped in there that could hurt a person. We just don't know."

Instead, the DOT plans to beef up the police presence on the bridge and eventually install new video cameras toward the top. The cameras now on the Skyway "monitor the bridge itself, not people stopping on the bridge," Pscion said.

The cameras to be installed next year would focus on the shoulders where drivers pull over, and would feed live footage to a Florida Highway Patrol station.

"We can have a police officer there in a matter of minutes," Pscion said. Within a couple of months, she said, troopers will patrol the bridge 24 hours a day.

One of the state's most scenic bridges, the Skyway is the third-deadliest bridge in the country for suicides after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego's Coronado Bridge.

The number of people who jump to their deaths from the Skyway has been rising: six in 1996, eight in 1997, 12 in 1998 and 12 again last year. Two died last month.

Bush learned of the problem when he visited a Hillsborough County crisis center while running for governor in 1998. He got elected and told the DOT to investigate the idea of putting some kind of safety barrier on the bridge.

The DOT asked the Tallahassee engineering firm that designed the Skyway to study whether fences or nets were feasible.

The engineers said a 17-foot-high fence would prevent people from standing on their cars and jumping over. But it would cost nearly $19-million to build such a fence along the sections of Skyway that are at least 65 feet above the water. And a taller, 28-foot fence would cost $50-million.

The top of the bridge is nearly 200 feet up, with only a 31/2-foot concrete wall along the sides.

The top also sways with the wind. Engineers think a fence would affect the bridge's aerodynamics and make it less safe in high winds, although a more detailed study would be needed to know the full effect.

The DOT has rejected hanging safety nets from the bridge. Engineers figure anyone serious about jumping could crawl to the edge of the net and jump again from there, although they would be lower. Also, the DOT says, the nets could collect trash and become unsafe.

"I don't agree with their decision," said Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes, a retired DOT safety manager whose sister, Linda Blankenship, jumped from the bridge in 1997. "I don't believe DOT is in a position to decide how effective a net would be. There are examples where netting has worked."

At the very least, Yakes said, nets would be a deterrent.

Justin Sayfie, a spokesman for Bush, said the governor had simply wanted the DOT to study its options. He pointed out that six suicide hotline phones put on the bridge last year have had an effect. Several people have used the phones.

"DOT is still looking for other solutions to make the bridge safer," Sayfie said, "doing so in a way that's a prudent use of taxpayer dollars."

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