Mayor Marion Barry's decision to finish construction of a suicide barrier along the Calvert Street bridge drew fire yesterday from political and community leaders who said city officials delayed taking other safety measures because they knew more suicides would help fence proponents prevail.
"We've been sandbagged by the bureaucrats who did nothing between August and now," said City Council member Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), who persuaded the mayor in late September to halt fence construction. "They figured next time somebody jumped it would be in the headlines and the pressure would be on again to finish the fence."
Barry said Wednesday that an eight-foot fence would be erected on the bridge, a three-arch landmark over Rock Creek Park known officially as the Duke Ellington Bridge, and that its effectiveness would be reviewed in one year.
In the past eight years, 37 persons have jumped to their deaths from the bridge and a nearby span on Connecticut Avenue NW. Most of the suicides, including three since late November, have occurred from the Calvert Street bridge.
Proponents of the fence, including a man whose daughter jumped from the bridge, say the 125-foot Calvert Street span has become the most notorious suicide site in the city. Opponents argue that the fence would spoil the scenic view and be a waste of funds because would-be suicides could find other means of killing themselves.
"The fence is just a very cold-hearted way to tell people to go somewhere else to die," said James Morrison of the Kalorama Citizens Association, one of six citizen groups opposed to the fence construction.
Last summer several preservationist, community and business organizations took the city to court in an effort to block construction of the fence. They argued that, contrary to federal law, the city's Department of Public Works had gone ahead with plans to build the fence without a public hearing and without considering alternative proposals.
"We have broken our backs trying to get a public hearing," Morrison said.
DPW spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said yesterday that the agency, which got approval for the fence design a year ago from the Commission of Fine Arts and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, does not have to hold a hearing on bridge modifications.
The U.S. District Court ruled against the fence opponents, but Barry stopped construction of the fence anyway. He and Smith said they wanted to allow time to consider other alternatives, including installation of a safety net beneath the bridge similar to that used by the construction industry.
In explaining his reversal, the mayor cited the recent suicides, saying, "Life is more important than esthetics."
But Smith said city officials didn't follow up on suggestions he made in August for installing a net, better lighting and telephones on the bridge that might have prevented the latest jumps.
Morrison said the fence funds could be better spent on suicide prevention programs in the high schools and on improving the city's suicide hot line.
"People have jumped and been killed on nine bridges here," he said, noting that would-be suicides would go to the nearby Connecticut Avenue or the Massachusetts Avenue bridges over the park. "Shall we become the city of barred bridges?"
Benjamin J. Read, who spearheaded the fence drive after his daughter jumped from the bridge, said would-be suicides are less likely to use other bridges because they are either lower and over water or more heavily traveled.