Construction begins on suicide prevention fence at Quechee Gorge

by Lorraine Liu | 10/24/18 3:00am

In a series of measures to prevent suicide at the Quechee Gorge Bridge in Vermont, a temporary fence is being constructed.

Four days into construction, workers have finished putting up the supporting poles for the fence on the north side of the bridge, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation project manager J.B. McCarthy. He said that the next stage of construction before tying the fence to the existing rail posts will be to set up the supporting poles on the south side of the bridge, which is expected to take three days. Upon its completion, the nine-foot-tall chain-link fence will be attached to the 200-foot-long bridge, covering the original four-foot-high pedestrian bridge railing.

The design of the temporary chain-link fence aims to prevent people from climbing over the bridge.

“There would be a little curve on [the fence],” McCarthy said. “So inside it’d be harder to climb up and get around over it.”

Vermont State Senator Alison Clarkson said that she hoped that the temporary fence will deter suicides at the bridge.

“We have four suicides off that bridge in 10 months. That’s appalling,” she said. “We’re hoping [the fence] would prevent suicides at that location.”

Kip Miller, owner of Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear, was skeptical of the fence’s overall effectiveness, as he thinks people might go elsewhere.

“I think it will probably be effective at the bridge, but not preventive,” he said. “People who [committed suicide] made a choice. They made the choice to come here, and now they’ll have to choose to go someplace else and chose to do something different.”

Town of Hartford police chief Phillip Kasten said the gorge has seen 14 suicides between 2007 and July 2018, according to the Valley News.

The project experienced two delays prior to its start on Monday, Oct. 15. Project advertisement, contractor selection, material delivery and delay on the contractor’s side postponed the start date from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, according to McCarthy. The second delay came amidst the peak foliage season when the transit agency put off the construction until Oct. 15 to avoid slowing down tourists’ traffic.

McCarthy didn’t provide a definite expected date for the project’s completion.

“Anything else, like the weather and other delays, could postpone the construction,” he said. “[But], certainly, it will be done by November 16.”

The temporary fence project was initiated in earlier 2018, according to McCarthy. However, measures to ensure safety at the bridge were proposed as early as January, 2016, when Vermont State Representative Teo Zagar introduced bill H.593, which required the transit agency to implement suicide prevention at the bridge. In response to the bill, the agency published a study on the bridge’s safety issues in January 2017 that put forward several suicide prevention barriers, including the chain-link fence.

McCarthy said the transit agency didn’t initiate the fence project right away because of a lack of funding.

“There was no construction money dedicated at that point,” he said. “[The project] was programmed for funding and design earlier in 2018.”

In July, a meeting was held in Hartford to discuss the design of the barrier. During the meeting, different opinions on the fence’s design emerged among attendees, which included representatives from Vermont transit, Vermont legislators, local businessmen and parents of suicide victims. Constructing a temporary chain-link fence was the fastest option, according to McCarthy.

Clarkson expressed concerns about the impact of the chain-link fence on tourism at the Quechee Gorge.

“[The chain-link fence] is not going to be particularly attractive with some holes cut in it,” she said. “It will probably slow tourists down, because they have to line up in the heavy tourist season to get a view through these holes that have been cut in the fence.”

Miller had a similar view.

“We were just concerned that it will change the whole ambiance of the bridge and the experience,” he said. “And it will also interfere with the view that people come here for.”

The temporary fence will likely stay in place for two years before it is replaced by a permanent and more aesthetically pleasing fence, according to McCarthy.