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'Suicide fence' for 15th Street Bridge hit a speed-bump

Q: No one has worked on the new 15th Street Bridge sidewalk since the bridge opened to traffic on Dec. 20. It took forever and a day to build the bridge, yet four months later, no one can walk across it. When will the sidewalk be completed? Soon the major rehabilitation of the Eighth Street Bridge will begin, possibly further limiting pedestrian routes to the south side of town.

— Gregg Heilman, Allentown

Q: What's the timetable for the contractor to finish work on the 15th Street Bridge?

— Nick Butterfield, Allentown

A: The bridge opened to much fanfare, including marching bands, speeches by dignitaries and ceremonial first crossings by antique cars that December afternoon, on the cusp of what turned out to be a brutal winter. You're right, Gregg, motorists had been cooling their Goodyears for a long time: Traffic restrictions related to the bridge replacement were imposed in November 2010.

(And incidentally, you're also correct about the impending start of the $18.5 million rehabilitation of the Albertus L. Meyers Bridge in Allentown, which will leave but one northbound lane of traffic available for the next two years. The bridge will be closed to southbound motorists; the city plans to convert a portion of Union Street to two-way traffic during construction to help smooth the road for detours to the 15th Street Bridge. One sidewalk will remain open. Construction is expected to begin within a month.)

So why are the sidewalks on both sides of the new 15th Street Bridge still barricaded? The concrete walks themselves basically are complete. A problem with the design of the pedestrian-safety fence — the safety aspect including suicide prevention — threw the fence into neutral, taking the sidewalk along as a passenger.

The 15th Street Bridge is owned by the city, which is managing the construction contract, but the state is the main funding source, so PennDOT engineers have review responsibilities. State engineers picked up on the design flaw.

"The … proposed fence in the plans did not meet [federal] pedestrian-railing loading requirements, mainly for motor-vehicle impact," PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said in an email.

After consulting with state engineers, "the city of Allentown directed their contractor to redesign and fabricate the fence" to meet the strength standards, he said.

"They found the original fence design not to be strong enough," said Craig Messinger, the city's interim Public Works director. "It had to be redesigned."

Obviously, without the fence, someone could fall off the bridge accidentally, not to mention leap from it intentionally. This particular bridge wouldn't strike me as a good choice for the latter — it's not nearly high enough — but then, clear thinking is hardly a hallmark of these situations.

The fence also could help prevent the dangerous practice of throwing objects from the bridge onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive or other areas below, Young said. Eight-foot-tall mesh fencing was added to the Fifth Street and MacArthur Road bridges over Route 22 in the wake of such an incident at the Fifth Street span in Whitehall Township. A motorist in a passing car on the highway was killed by a large chunk of ice tossed from the bridge in that January 2003 tragedy. Fencing is included on the new MacArthur bridge, which is just now being completed.

On the bright side of the road, the bridge has been redesigned to correct the structural problem, and city officials expect the contractor, J.D. Eckman Inc. of Atglen, Chester County, to begin "remobilizing" for the fence installation and for painting and other finishing work as soon as Monday. The fence basically will consist of a 31/2-foot concrete wall topped by a 6-foot-tall ornamental powder-coated steel fencing.

Messinger said the remaining work should take six to eight weeks. The fence will consist of a 31/2-foot handrail on each end of the bridge, rising to 8 or 10 feet tall on the main part of the span, according to plans.

In 2012, PennDOT agreed to include a suicide-prevention fence on the Albertus Meyers Bridge when the span is rehabilitated — starting, as it turns out, in the coming weeks. For years, the state had resisted requests for such a barrier.

"It's been a 14-year battle," Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said when the fence got the green light. Grim said at the time that painful discussions with suicide victims' survivors had made him a fence advocate.

Most experts in the realm of suicide favor the fences, but there's opposing traffic as well. Some people consider the fences to be eyesores, especially on bridges such as the century-old Meyers, its graceful arches having helped secure its 1988 inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fences add cost — PennDOT estimated the tab for installing fencing on the half-mile-long Meyers at $250,000 in 2003 — and as an Allentown resident said at a public meeting in 2012, those intent upon suicide "will just find another bridge to jump off," or some other means.

That may be true, but proponents insist the fences discourage many potential jumpers.

The Meyers seems to have a special allure. It took only two years for the bridge to record its first suicide, a leap by an unemployed 57-year-old William C. Kleinsmith in 1915. About 80 people have followed, a total that leaves other area bridges far behind in a grim race. Officials including psychiatrist Paul Gross contend that in addition to height and other physical characteristics, certain bridges seem to develop a kind of allure, a reputation as the place to go to end it all.

"A very tragic tradition," Gross described it a few years ago.

It will take some time to gauge, but after the Meyers reopens, we'll find out how effective this particular suicide-prevention fence can be.

"Bert" Meyers was an Allentown musician and bandleader of international renown for whom the Eighth Street Bridge was named in 1974, three years before his death. As an Allentown Band musician, he played at the bridge's 1913 dedication ceremony. The cost of construction was at that time a staggering $500,000.

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