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Vermont Officials Scrap Netting as Suicide Deterrent at Quechee Gorge Bridge

  • Caity Bond, left, talks with Jamie Ferguson, while visiting the Quechee, Vt., Gorge from Amherst, Mass. where they are graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. Ferguson said his view of the gorge was not hindered by the fence, installed last month as a suicide deterrent. "If (a suicide) happened once in 1960, then I would say it's not necessary," he said. "If it's a frequent safety hazard, it's a necessary safety precaution." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kenneth and Elizabeth Leggott, of Hodgen, Okla., take a selfie atop the Quechee Gorge Bridge in Hartford, Vt. on Monday, October 3, 2016. "This is a bucket wish," they said. The gorge is a popular tourist destination during fall foliage season. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2018

Quechee — The days when sightseers could lean over a waist-high railing at the Quechee Gorge Bridge and gaze down at the popular natural tourist attraction are officially over.

State officials recently scrapped the idea of putting a net below the bridge instead of erecting a tall fence to discourage suicides and improve safety at the Route 4 span.

“There are too many negatives” with installing a net, Vermont Agency of Transportation Project Manager JB McCarthy said, assuring residents that it “wasn’t a quick decision.”

The news was announced at a state Quechee Gorge project meeting on Nov. 29 in Hartford, which was just one in a series of meetings held in town to discuss solutions to make the area safer.

Workers last month erected a 9-foot-tall fence as a temporary measure, and discussions have been ongoing to come up with a long-term solution that will be worked into a large-scale bridge renovation project slated for completion in 2022. The temporary fence has several rectangle cutouts in the fencing that allow visitors to have an unobstructed view of the gorge holding the Ottauquechee River, 165 feet below.

The temporary fence and other safety measures stem from legislation passed in 2016 requiring officials to implement suicide-prevention measures and improve pedestrian and first-responder safety in response to suicides and other incidents.

At least two people at the meeting expressed surprise that the net option, which would hang below the bridge and be designed to catch someone in the event they jumped over the railing, was off the table.

Kip Miller, the longtime owner of Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear, said he felt that was the best option to both maintain the sweeping views and improve safety.

“I’m disappointed,” Miller said this week. “We were hoping the net would be the choice.”

He questioned whether officials were only looking at it from a financial standpoint.

Hartford Chamber of Commerce Director PJ Skehan said he too was surprised to hear that the net option wouldn’t be further vetted.

But after hearing the reasons why, he said he was OK with the decision.

McCarthy, the project manager, said there were a host of problems associated with that option.

Perhaps one of the most difficult obstacles to work around was securing funding for the net.

He said the steel material used for the netting is a product manufactured outside of the United States. The project is 80 percent federally funded and comes with the requirement that the products used must be purchased from within the United States, he said.

Essentially, the state would have forfeited the funding for the multi-million dollar project if it went with the net option, McCarthy said.

There also would be a high cost to design the net, and the net would prove problematic for bridge inspections, McCarthy said.

It also would need to be inspected annually to make sure it is structurally sound, and someone would need to routinely clean it of debris.

“It was lot of issues that pilled up,” McCarthy said, noting that the state studied the net idea for several months.

All of that aside, the net also would have impacted the views to some extent, he said.

“The benefit is you would have the view until you look down and then you would see all the netting,” he said.

The Quechee Gorge Bridge is a historic structure, so project officials are working with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

State architectural historian Devin Colman said netting was the preferred option as it doesn’t block the view of the gorge from the road and was “pretty unobtrusive for the visitor experience.”

“In working through the actual logistics of what that would require ... it became pretty clear that esthetically it might be the best solution but practically it probably isn’t,” Colman said last week.

From a historic standpoint, the permanent solution should be “minimally intrusive on the bridge itself,” he said.

“Change is OK. A historic property does not have to be frozen in time ... but it is how that change is done and is it in a way that is sensitive to the resource or does it overwhelm the resource,” he said. “We would opt for the more sensitive option,” which would have been the net, he said.

His office will continue to work with state officials on the final product.

The Hartford Fire Department, which is the agency that rescues the bodies of individuals who have died by suicide at the gorge, didn’t have a preference on a safety option, Assistant Chief Alan Beebe said. The department’s only concern is access, so if either option had a way for rescue officials to access the bottom of the gorge from the bridge, they both would have worked, he said.

The temporary fence has sections that can be removed if a rescue is necessary, for example.

At the meeting in November, officials discussed potential options for a permanent solution, such as fences with designs that are straight up and down or curved at the top. The final product hasn’t been selected.

The new bridge design will include wider sidewalks and a permanent railing that separates pedestrians from vehicular traffic; the barrier that is out there now is removable.

The temporary fence has been installed for about eight weeks, and many sightseers interviewed in mid-November said the fence hasn’t significantly impacted views.

Skehan, with the chamber of commerce, said visitors’ comments are mostly positive. In his opinion, the temporary fence has proved to be “a deterrent.”

Four people died by suicide at the gorge between January and July of this year. The gorge has been the site of 14 suicides between 2007 and July 2018.

The state will hold one more public meeting on the Quechee Gorge Bridge project in March. That will be the last chance for the public to weigh in on the project.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.