UMN taskforce considers safety changes for Washington Avenue Bridge

Renderings of a tall railing for the bridge drew opposition and concerns from some U faculty.

Pedestrians bike on the West River Parkway trail under Washington Avenue bridge on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. University students and faculty members disagree over whether to add concrete barriers to the sides to better prevent people jumping from the bridge.

Holly Peterson, Daily File Photo

Pedestrians bike on the West River Parkway trail under Washington Avenue bridge on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. University students and faculty members disagree over whether to add concrete barriers to the sides to better prevent people jumping from the bridge.

Natalie Rademacher

A University Services proposal for structural changes to Washington Avenue Bridge was met with opposition at a University Senate Finance and Planning Committee meeting last week.

At the April 18 meeting, Interim Vice President of University Services Mike Berthelsen presented renderings of 9.6-foot tall railings along the bridge. The proposal, meant to ensure safety, drew concerns over high costs, effectiveness and view obstruction.

The proposal is tentative and University Services has no concrete plans to move forward with structural changes, Berthelsen said. The department is working with the University Senate’s Student Affairs Committee to determine possible safety updates to the bridge.

The conversations about adding barriers began after a student approached the Student Affairs Committee, advocating for a way to prevent accidents or suicide attempts, said Brianne Keeney, head of the committee.

So far, the only proposal with renderings suggests extending the railings to over 9 feet tall, which would cost about $3 million, Berthelsen said at the meeting. He also said the department is looking into netting options.

Most of the feedback centered on the railings, with some concerned the railings would block views of the river and skyline.

“The views from that bridge are about as iconic as saying ‘Let’s tear down Northrop,’ and I am afraid you might get a lot of backlash,” said committee member Karen Seashore. “We should look at other alternatives so we don’t do something that is going to cost a lot of money and be a battle between people.”

At Cornell University, chain link fences were added along multiple bridges in 2010. After backlash, the barriers were replaced with stainless steel cable netting that wraps under the deck in 2013.

Adding netting would involve working with Hennepin County, which owns the overall structure and bridge’s lower level, Berthelsen said.

Some faculty members at the meeting said they were skeptical that a barrier would be the best way to prevent accidents and injuries on the bridge.

“Is that $3 million better spent with counseling and prevention?” said committee member Paul Olin.

Committee members also discussed investing in other prevention methods. Keeney suggested closing the pedestrian walkways on either side of the enclosed central corridor at night.

“I think all of this should be more of a bigger discussion about mental health. Are there resources or strategies earlier for someone to intervene or support them if someone is in crisis?” Keeney said.

In 2007, adding barriers to the bridge entered public discussion when University student Brad Bogard presented a plan to the Minnesota Student Association that involved adding black vinyl security fencing along the bridge.

Data on deaths from the bridge has been difficult to find because of the way deaths are recorded in coroners’ reports and medical records, Keeney said.

She added the task force has been working with the University of Minnesota Police Department on ways to make the bridge safer.

A University spokesperson declined to make a representative from UMPD available for comment.

Measures have already been taken to make the bridge safer, Berthelsen said. New cameras were installed on the bridge earlier this semester. Signs have been posted on the railings with phone numbers for 24/7 crisis help.

“I think you are doing the right thing here by proposing options and having the conversation. [You are] most likely to succeed if you have this conversation and include the community,” said committee member Erik van Kuijk.