Steel safety net aims to deter suicides from Golden Gate Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Officials have authorized the installation of barriers along the Golden Gate Bridge that are designed to prevent or deter those who want to jump from the bridge and commit suicide.

But cost overruns have delayed installation of the steel mesh net, which is scheduled for completion by 2021, and the price tag has more than doubled. Even so, officials say they must take action to deter those who want to end their lives from the iconic bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge appears to be a suicide magnet and officials have noticed a disturbing trend since the start of the 21st century.

"What we have seen at the bridge since 2000 is a five-fold increase in young people under the age of 25 coming to the bridge to kill themselves," said Dennis Mulligan, general manager and CEO of the Golden Gate Bridge and Transportation District.

Officials say in 2015 as many as 186 people traveled to the Golden Gate Bridge to kill themselves. Since the bridge was first constructed in 1937, it is believed that some 1,600 people have ended their lives by jumping off the bridge.

Officials say last year that 33 people could not be restrained or talked out of killing themselves with most jumping to the west toward the Pacific Ocean.

Bridge keepers say they hope the new barrier will reverse the suicide trend. But questions have been raised about the escalating costs associated with the project.

Officials say the costs of the steel mesh barrier net, originally estimated at about $70 million, have risen to $200 million.

"The bids came in high and so we put together a revised funding plan," Mulligan said.

Experts say if the barriers are successful most people will stop jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge and those that are successful will be saved by the net.

Officials project that in the 25 years following installation, the mesh barrier will save the lives of 750 people, which amounts to a cost of about $25,000 per jumper.

"The investment is still worth every penny of it based on the lives that are saved," Mulligan said.

In previous years, resistance to the barrier centered on a belief that suicidal people would just find another location to kill themselves. There were also concerns about costs and worries about changing the bridge's iconic look.

"Back when (the bridge) was first built, they were telling people, 'Put something here.'" said Manuel Gamboa, whose 18-year-old son Kyle died during a jump from the bridge in 2013.

Now that a contract is in place to build the net, Gamboa said he no longer has to worry about cost overruns that could end up scuttling the project.

"I feel like this is a big step forward in building this barrier at the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent people from going there," he said.

Public thinking has changed and experts say a barrier is the best use of money to save lives. But, will it work?

Though this will be the first bridge suicide barrier in the U.S., a dozen bridges worldwide have been up for at least two decades.

"During that time period, there's only been one death," Mulligan said.

Many studies show that most bridge suicides are impulsive. And some survivors say they regretted their decision as soon as they jumped while the majority never tries it again.

Local officials say the net will serve as an effective deterrent for the impulse jumper drawn to the aura of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"They don't seek another bridge or another location," said Amy Worth of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "The Golden Gate is the magnet."

By KTVU reporter Tom Vacar.