Bill Bolsters Safety in Quechee

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/12/2016 12:06:57 AM

Quechee — A call for action to prevent the loss of life at the Quechee Gorge Bridge, which has been the site of eight suicides since 2008, has been answered in legislation now awaiting the signature of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

This year’s transportation funding bill, which was passed on Friday by Vermont’s House and Senate, mandates a study of physical measures, such as barriers, or new emergency communications on the bridge. It also calls for the installation by July 1 of a new structure “aimed at preventing suicides at the bridge” that will have signs, information or communication devices.

“It’s basically what we wanted,” said Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, who in January introduced a bill calling for the state to consider installing a physical suicide barrier on the historic and scenic bridge.

The call for measures to prevent suicides and reduce dangers to first responders at the local tourist attraction originated with the parents of Derek Cooper, a 21-year-old Hartland student and volunteer firefighter who died after jumping from the bridge on July 4, 2011.

Regina-Anne Cooper, Derek Cooper’s mother, noted how difficult it was to have the bill’s fate unsettled as Mother’s Day weekend approached. “All day Friday I was sweating it, thinking, ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to make it,’ ” she said. Even the news it had passed “was bittersweet.”

But Cooper said she saw in the bill “very creative and innovative” thinking: “I’m all for it,” she said.

The passage marked an advance in a process that Cooper had put in motion by contacting Zagar, who drafted a bill that would have given the state Agency of Transportation until Jan. 15 to study “suicide and pedestrian safety measures” at the bridge and until Oct. 1, 2017, to complete them.

In March, the House Transportation Committee held a hearing on Zagar’s bill and then incorporated it into its annual transportation funding bill language, calling for the agency to install suicide prevention signage this summer and then assess the costs and benefits of more substantial measures. That assessment is due early next year.

“I was very, very pleased that the House Transportation Committee included (the Quechee Gorge measures) in its budget,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a mental health care advocate.

Cooper said she felt supportive testimony from Hartford Interim Fire Chief Scott Cooney and police Chief Phil Kasten helped to “sway the Transportation Committee.”

The mandate for work on the bridge remained in the bill on Friday, when both chambers of the Legislature agreed to a conference committee report. The bill now is on Shumlin’s desk, Zagar said Tuesday, and is expected to be signed shortly.

A spokesman for Shumlin could not be reached late Wednesday for comment.

Officials in Vermont tallied 833 suicides in the state for the period that began July 1, 2008, and ended Dec. 31, 2015. While mental health care, including treatment for depression, constitutes the state’s main response to suicide, experts say that putting physical barriers in the way of what often is an impulsive act also can save lives.

The Quechee Gorge Bridge was the site of eight of the 11 Vermont suicides by jumps from high bridges since July 2008, according to state officials.

“There’s a lot of research (showing) that certain locations become hot spots” that attract individuals who are considering suicide, Donahue said.

Shumlin’s signature would set a July 1 deadline by which the Agency of Transportation would need to seek to deter suicides on the bridge through “a structure providing information and resources, signs or communication devices, or some combination of these.”

Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear owner Kipp Miller said he had heard talk of a “kiosk” being built, but was unsure where it would be located.

“We’re just kind of in a waiting mode now to see where it happens,” he said.

The bill also gives the agency until Jan. 10 to report back to the Legislature with a plan for structural changes or emergency communication devices that would help prevent suicides and make the bridge safer for pedestrians and first responders. It mandates the agency consult with other state and local officials, business owners and mental health caregivers; do a cost-benefit analysis; and weigh the “economic, community and tourism concerns” generated by any measures.

Local businesses had asked to be included in that process, Miller said.

Cooper noted the bill did not specify “any one total fix,” but instead directed the agency “to meet with different entities on coming up with a solution for a long-term fix that suits the town, the businesses and people that are visiting the bridge.”

In 2014, Zagar introduced a bill that would have mandated the state Agency of Transportation to design suicide barriers at the Quechee Gorge Bridge as a model to be implemented on bridges around the state. That legislation died in the House Transportation Committee.

But the advocacy work isn’t done, Zagar cautioned. “We all need to be on top of Hartford’s Selectboard, the Chamber of Commerce, the Agency of Transportation, just to make sure that things are progressing.”

Cooper also was skeptical about the likelihood of rapid change. “The fix may not come for a decade,” she said. “It could be two decades.”

But some progress already was in hand, she said. “We got people to think about it ... and come together to find a solution.”

The bridge measure was one of several legislative actions this year that was important to mental health care advocates, according to Donahue. She hailed the approval of a 2 percent increase in reimbursement rates to the nonprofit organizations, known as designated agencies, that provide mental health care in communities. That increase will take effect on Sept. 1, so the overall impact on agency budgets will be a little less than 2 percent, Donahue said.

Donahue also noted the Legislature’s rejection of a proposal by the Department of Vermont Health Access that would have required prior approval for Medicaid coverage of some mental health services. That would have violated a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires health insurance cover mental health and substance misuse care on the same terms that it covers other chronic illness, she said.

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.




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