Advocates vow to fight for suicide barriers on RI bridges after studies question cost

Two studies questioning the cost and feasibility of safety barriers on bridges have disappointed suicide prevention advocates, but they remain committed to helping save lives

Jonny Williams
Providence Journal

Note: This story contains mentions of suicide and self-harm.

PROVIDENCE − If the current mood of suicide-prevention advocates in Rhode Island could be summed up in one word, it would be “disappointment.”

“I can’t say it enough how extremely disappointed I am,” said state Sen. Louis DiPalma.

The source of DiPalma’s disappointment? Two studies commissioned by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority on the feasibility of adding safety infrastructure to dissuade people from jumping from the Mount Hope Bridge in Bristol and the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge in North Kingstown.

The studies, which were more than a year in the making, concluded that the Mount Hope Bridge could not bear the added weight of a safety barrier, while adding a steel wire net fence across 9,500 feet of the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge would cost $8.9 million to $10.3 million, an estimate state lawmakers balked at.

Suicide-prevention advocates have lobbied for years for such safety measures to give pause to people who may contemplate jumping from the bridges. Between 2021 and May 23, 2023, 17 people died by jumping from Rhode Island bridges, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Health. But Melissa Cotta, founder of Bridging the Gap, an advocacy group, said some deaths may not be included in the toll because bodies can’t be found or they are classified as drownings.

Advocates and state lawmakers said Thursday brought a grim reminder of what is at stake: that morning, another person died by suicide from a Newport County bridge.

Between 2021 and May 23, 2023, five people died by jumping from Mount Hope Bridge, according to Rhode Island’s Department of Health.

“At this point, we all need to look at the human element of this. Do we actually have to lose someone to make a move and do something?” Cotta said.

Aggravating their disappointment was the timeline of the release of the studies, which were originally due in May but were not released until this week, days before lawmakers vote on this year’s budget. DiPalma filed a public-records request for the preliminary studies in early April, but it was denied by RITBA, which argued that draft reports are exempt because they are not public records.

“They could have provided the documents,” DiPalma said. “Yes, the law does not require it, but the law doesn't restrict them either.”

Had RITBA provided the preliminary studies, DiPalma said, “We would have had a much more robust conversation and debate in Providence at the State House. Without it, can't do that.”

DiPalma said the likelihood of funding for barriers on the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge being included in this year’s budget is extremely low.

Sen. Louis DiPalma has been an advocate of safety barriers on Rhode Island bridges.

RITBA spokesperson Cara Cromwell said the agency had no further comment on the reports.

“The studies stand on their own as far as just essentially being facts and data,” Cromwell said.

Draft reports for studies looking at the feasibility of safety barriers on the Newport Pell Bridge and the Sakonnet River Bridge are due later this year.

Advocates vow to continue fighting for safety barriers

The setback, however, has not dampened the resolve of advocates and lawmakers. State Rep. Joseph Solomon, who along DiPalma championed the bill that funded the feasibility studies, said he would sit down with an engineer to look over the details of RITBA’s recommendations for the Mount Hope Bridge.

“I'm not taking ‘no’ for an answer that it can't be done on the Mount Hope Bridge,” Solomon said. “Especially in 2024, with today's technology, it shouldn’t be a matter of whether we can do it. It's a question of how we can do it.”

He also noted that fencing on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida − which runs about  and was installed in 2021 − cost $3.4 million, about a third of the high-end estimate provided by RITBA for the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge. Transportation authorities in Florida say the fencing has helped reduce suicides.

Denise Panichas, executive director of The Samaritans, a nonprofit that works on suicide prevention, said bureaucracy is getting in the way of installing safety barriers in Rhode Island, but she doesn’t think there is ill intent by anyone involved.

“I don't want to believe that no one on the Bridge and Turnpike Authority cares, that no one in the legislature [cares], that no one in our congressional delegation [cares]. I believe everybody cares. Now, how do we bring all of that caring together toward a solution? We can't give up. We have to keep trying,” Panichas said.

Denise Panichas, executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, said bridge barriers would not only save lives but would spare loved ones and first responders from the ripple effects of guilt and trauma experienced after a suicide.

Not all are so charitable toward RITBA. Cotta, who has attended RITBA board meetings with family members of people who have died from jumping from bridges, thinks there is a lack of urgency at the agency.

“They have chosen year after year not to act. It took pressure from advocates, news media and legislators to get them to move on it at all,” Cotta said.

And for her part, Panichas is still in disbelief at the delays in installing safety barriers on the state’s bridges.

“We can put a man on the moon. We can find things on the bottom of the ocean. [But] we can't figure out how to stop someone from falling off a bridge? Doesn't make an ounce of sense,” Panichas said.

Suicide-prevention resources: Where to turn if you are considering suicide

Anyone in immediate danger should call 911.

Other resources:

  • 988 and BHLink: For confidential support and to get connected to care, call (988) or visit the BHLink 24-hour/7-day triage center at 975 Waterman Ave., East Providence. Website: 
  • The Samaritans of Rhode Island: (401) 272-4044 or (800) 365-4044. Website:
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK, or (800) 273-8255
  • The Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 “from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis.”
  • Butler Hospital Behavioral Health Services Call Center: Available 24/7 “to guide individuals seeking advice for themselves or others regarding suicide prevention.” (844) 401-0111
  • Thrive Behavioral Health's Emergency Services: 24-hour crisis hotline (401) 738-4300.