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Higher Foresthill Bridge barriers poised for installation

Bridge retrofit plans call for work to start this spring on taller fence
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - A new 6½-foot-high pedestrian barrier will soon be replacing the 4-foot-high railing that now extends across the Foresthill bridge. Contractor Golden State Bridge is anticipating that reconstruction of the barriers on the bridge?s scenic south side should start between now and June. The height and type of barrier has been questioned by Protect American River Canyons, which has lobbied for an 8-foot-high fence that curves inward at the top. The Auburn group says that will help prevent suicidal jumps and trash dumping into the canyon. But Caltrans successfully held out for a 6½-foot barrier with no inward curve so it could continue to use a specially designed crane that could reach over the fence to inspect the exterior of the 730-foot-high span. Placer County, which owns the bridge, was caught in the middle of the dispute, but has opted for a lower barrier height for now. ?The good news is we?ll have something that is going to make it harder,? Grehm said. ?It would?ve been nice to have done something that was taller. And there?s nothing preventing having someone in the future pay for it.? Eric Peach, a Protect American River Canyons board member, said that he?s observed bridge fencing for the barrier has already been stockpiled at the construction site. ?It looks like they?re going to be completely taking out the old railing,? Peach said. ?It?s not high enough, although it may stop some of the sport dumping. Ultimately, we don?t think it?s going to stop people from taking their lives. It?s the whole community that has to deal with that.? Towering 730 feet above the North Fork American River streambed, the Foresthill Bridge is the fourth highest in the United States and the highest in California. A popular destination for tourists who enjoy the view, it?s also a tragic final destination. Sixty-one people have been killed in plunges off the bridge since its opening on Labor Day 1973, according to an unofficial count based on Placer County Sheriff?s Office and Journal reports. A start on the Foresthill Bridge barrier will come weeks after completion of a similar fence on Santa Barbara County?s Cold Spring Bridge. The bridge, along State Route 154, has been the scene of 55 suicide leaps since it was opened in 1964 and Caltrans erected the 10-foot-high bridge as a preventive barrier. The cost of the barrier was $778,000 and it was described by Caltrans District 5 Director Rich Krumholz as a project to enhance safety for everyone who travels the bridge. Caltrans? Cold Spring Bridge project had its opposition ? but for a different reason. A group called Friends of the Bridge opposed the 10-foot-high fence, stating that it would detract from the scenic viewshed. It took Caltrans to court but a judge allowed the project to move forward. It was declared completed March 1. The Auburn-based Protect American River Canyons group didn?t mount a court challenge but maintained that a higher barrier with an inward curve ? about two feet lower than the Cold Spring span ? would prevent dumping and suicides. Peach said that the mesh on the barrier being installed on the Foresthill Bridge will still allow people to poke a camera lens through. ?A lot of people are concerned about ruining the aesthetics but this is a compromise,? Peach said. The barrier work represents a small but visible part of a $74.7 million seismic retrofit and repainting project on the bridge. Work started in late-winter last year. Grehm said the project is within budget and on schedule to be completed in 2013. The spring schedule also calls for continuing paint removal, priming, and steel retrofit work on all three spans. ?It?s doing very well,? Grehm said. ?There is a lot of painting and steel left to do but if it continues on the same pace, work could probably be done before the end of 2013.?