State to take steps to reduce the risk of suicides at Astoria Bridge

Aug. 12—After a series of tragedies and close calls, the Oregon Department of Transportation plans to take steps to reduce the risk of suicides at the Astoria Bridge.

The state does not keep an official count, but several people have leapt off the bridge in recent years.

In January, a 29-year-old Astoria man died after jumping off the bridge and landing on the grass east of Suomi Hall.

Another man with a history of mental health issues scaled the bridge twice this year.

One night in late July, a Mazda Tribute was found abandoned on the bridge, blocking the northbound lane. The owner is listed as a missing person, the Oregon State Police said.

"The Megler Bridge is a draw for suicide or suicide attempts," Monica Steele, the assistant Clatsop County manager, said this month at a Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting.

County leaders recently met virtually with Department of Transportation staff to discuss a range of options.

In the near future, the department will post bridge signs with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, the new national suicide-prevention number, according to Mark Buffington, the department's district manager on the North Coast.

The department may also enlarge a deck-level gate, currently topped with barbed wire, that allows access to the top of the span. People have managed to bypass it and ascend the steps to the bridge's highest point.

Other bridges, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have had netting installed to help catch people who jump. At the Astoria Bridge, the cormorant population could pose problems.

"I'm afraid that if we put netting down, we create a platform for nesting," Buffington said. "But it is in discussion."

Fencing may be another option, though a retrofit would be years away. "There's currently no funding for that type of change," Buffington said, adding, "It would be a major construction project."

The Astoria Bridge, completed in 1966, was designed to bear a certain weight and withstand winds of a certain speed. To add fencing to the superstructure would require the department to study the feasibility and engineering.

Steele told the Public Safety Coordinating Council that the county would work with its lobbying firm to find potential funding for a study.

Another idea from the county-Department of Transportation meeting is to post signage telling drivers to call 911 if they see someone walking on the bridge, an action considered trespassing. Current signs caution pedestrians not to walk on the span and offer suicide counseling.

The Department of Transportation can be reluctant to put up nonstandard signage. The department tries to adhere to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Buffington said.

The death of Carrie Barnhart, a 54-year-old woman who jumped off the Astoria Bridge in 2015, led to an examination of the gaps in the county's mental health safety net. Barnhart had a history of schizophrenia and depression and had been pulled from the bridge by police a week before her suicide. Her family settled a wrongful death claim against Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county's mental health and substance abuse treatment provider, over her treatment.

Sheriff Matt Phillips told the Public Safety Coordinating Council that what is needed is "more capable guardians," people who feel empowered to look after their fellow citizens and call emergency responders when they see someone on the bridge.

"We got citizens all over the place," the sheriff said. "Here's an opportunity to use them."