The cost of stopping a killer on our campus

The current rails on the Washington Avenue Bridge aren’t high enough to prevent a tragedy.

John Hoff

Brad Bogard went before a committee of the student government with a smart, cost-effective plan which would almost certainly save the lives of several students over the next few decades. Bogard’s plan involves putting safety barriers on the Washington Avenue Bridge to prevent suicides and drunken horseplay resulting in deadly plunges.

According to Bogard’s estimate, the barriers would cost $80 per square foot and you would need 1130 square feet, times two sides. Therefore, it would cost $180,000 for black vinyl security fencing. The barrier would curl inward, at the top, to prevent the fence from being easily scaled.

There is, of course, a cheaper fencing option which uses silver galvanized instead of black vinyl but, honestly, silver galvanized fencing?

Sorry, but I can’t help picturing small, well-worn backyards in dubious neighborhoods; little chunks of intensely personal territory featuring pit bulls, petunias and cigarette-scarred picnic tables, all imprisoned within sad, silver galvanized fencing. Distasteful music wafts through charcoal barbeque smoke:

This is the queen of my double-wide trailer/ With the polyester curtains and the redwood deck/ Sometimes she runs, and I’ve got to trail her/ Dang her black heart and her pretty red neck/

No, please, dear God, let’s go with the tasteful black vinyl, even if it costs a bit more than, ugh, silver galvanized fencing.

But back to BogardÖ

Bogard didn’t actually get anywhere with his idea. However, Bogard isn’t the least bit upset with the student government. In fact, it was a member of the student government who kindly put me in touch with Bogard, impressed with his ideas and PowerPoint presentation.

“The committee was pretty cool with me,” Bogard said in a recent e-mail. “The problem is they don’t have the funding necessary to make any type of big change.” Bogard found it impossible to get his idea “to the next phase, which would be a presentation to a larger committee with more say at the University.”

I think airing Bogard’s plan before the University community in a newspaper column is kind of like that “next phase.”

The Washington Avenue Bridge is a killer. Bogard cites figures of three to four suicide attempts per year. Half a dozen people have died since 1972. Prize-winning poet and University professor John Berryman was one of them. Recent history shows some jumps lead to long, lingering deaths.

Bogard has raised the idea of corporate naming rights in exchange for the security barriers. However, I think such naming rights are so valuable that we (the University community) should also get a new paint job and better security along with the barriers. Just before winter break, holiday lights could be strung along the fencing, creating a colorful tunnel of light. Maybe the lights could run on solar power or some other alternative energy, and the roof could feature flowers and small trees.

You might wonder what drives Bogard to pick up the ball on this issue and move it forward. It turns out Bogard had a friend and football teammate named Luke Homan who died from drowning in the Mississippi after he “went out on his own after a night at the bars.”

Bogard believes intoxicated people are tempted into risky behavior, and the current rails on the Washington Avenue Bridge are not high enough to prevent that kind of tragedy. He sees the prevention of suicide as a desirable side effect, with the fencing mostly directed at drunken horseplay.

In trying to prove his idea is worthy of funding, Bogard said human lives have “infinite benefit.” This is one area where I would gently disagree with Bogard. Clearly, human life can be reduced to cold, hard dollars and cents. Insurance companies do it all the time. There is a way to calculate the value of, for example, the life of a college student based on their expected lifetime earning potential.

However, this cynical bean-counter math based on estimated lifetime income leads me to the same conclusion as Bogard’s assertion of “infinite benefit.” Yes, considering the dollars and cents value of the life of a college student, the barriers would become cost effective if they prevented the death or permanent maiming of even one drunk or suicidal person. The potential cost of defending a lawsuit, even an unsuccessful lawsuit, is just fiscal gravy to go with the chicken-fried steak. (No, I’m not going to start singing country music again.)

The student government did help Bogard in the broadest sense, by giving him a public forum for his ideas. These are good ideas, worthy of further consideration at a higher level.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]