Since a 15-year-old Beaverton girl jumped to her death from the Vista Bridge last week, an urgency has come into discussions about making the Portland landmark—long a suicide hotspot—more safe. The mayor's office and transportation Commissioner Steve Novick said they've got a potential plan to install barriers that will protect both human life and the bridge's historic status. A citizens' group has begun its own push for barriers.
But Portland's hard up for cash, and the project is expensive—$2.5 million. Even if federal money's available to cover those costs, it's more than two years out, Novick says. So he's got Portland Bureau of Transportation officials working on a possible stop-gap. PBOT's in talks with the State Historic Preservation Office about building temporary barriers on the bridge.
"It might not look historic, but it would do the job in terms of preventing suicides," Novick tells the Mercury. "Apparently the state has signalled some willingness to look at that as a concept. So over the next few days thats something that we’re gonna be focusing on."
Under Novick's proposal, the city would agree to apply for federal money to build barriers that compliment the stately 87-year-old bridge in exchange for permission to construct something in the short-term.
"From a preliminary phone call or two, at least, the state folks seem to be open to an idea," Novick says. "Now, maybe they’ll get to a level above the people PBOT has talked to and they’ll say no. But we’ll push that discussion."
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places
and so subject to limitations on how it might be altered and improved. I'm waiting on the Historic Preservation Office to call me back about a possible deal with the city.
According to the Associated Press, at least 17 people have jumped from the Vista Bridge in the last decade.
UPDATE, 2:25 pm: According to Chrissy Curran, an associate deputy at the State Historic Preservation Office, the state actually has very few teeth when it comes to telling the city what it can and cannot do with the bridge.
State law requires the city to consult with the office on changes to publicly owned historic sites, but there is no mandate that the city has to follow its recommendations.
"It’s the city’s decision what they end up doing, but if they do have an adverse effect on the bridge, in the consultation process we ask that the city would mitigate somehow," Curran said. "The statute only requires them to go through the process."
So essentially anything the city decides to build on the bridge is fair game, from the state's perspective. I've got calls in to both Novick and Hales' office about this, and whether that $2.5 million figure is a hard one.
UPDATE 4:12 pm: After consulting PBOT staff, Novick clarifies the scrutiny to the bridge might come largely from the federal government. If the city hopes to tap federal grant money, Novick says, the government will want assurances it's being spent in a way that maintains the bridge's heritage. He also said flouting the state's recommendations could leave the city open to a lawsuit.