February 6, 2018

Committee blocks Gorge Bridge anti-suicide proposal

Daniel Schwen

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos. cc

The idea of assigning state police officers to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge to prevent suicidal people from jumping met with a quick defeat Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Members of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee unanimously blocked a bill to allocate $156,000 a year to help pay for the suicide prevention squad.

“I can’t see how it’s going to work,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who led opposition to the proposal, House Bill 166.

The measure called for three state police officers to be assigned to the bridge, presumably in different shifts.

But Thomson pointed out that the cost of salaries, benefits and equipment for three officers would run $288,000 a year, or nearly double the amount sought in the bill.

Beyond that, Thomson said, she questioned whether stationing officers on the Gorge Bridge in Taos County would be effective.

Someone intent on jumping to his death could easily find a section of the bridge without a police presence, she said.

The bridge has become notorious for suicides in the last quarter-century. This led to the installation of special phones on the bridge that connect can someone contemplating suicide with a hotline staffed by mental health professionals.

But the bill’s cosponsor, Democratic Rep. Bobby Gonzales of Ranchos de Taos, said more must be done.

He told the committee he believed a police presence on the bridge would serve as a deterrent to people considering suicide.

Gonzales said design alterations to the bridge, such as building a railing higher than the existing one of 47 inches, are not practical. The bridge cannot safely accommodate more weight that a structural change would cause, he said.

Another obstacle for Gonzales’ bill was that the House of Representatives has already moved its budget bill to the Senate. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who chairs the House finance committee, suggested that Gonzales could ask the Senate to amend the bill with funding for a police presence on the bridge.

In an interview after the hearing, Gonzales said it need not be police officers who staff the bridge. Rather, he said, the state could turn to a lower-paid security detail.

Still, he was not optimistic that any change could be accomplished during this legislative session, which is down to its last nine days.

“There is probably a very small chance that it can be done this year,” Gonzales said.

Taos, he added, bears the brunt of the pain whenever someone takes his life on the bridge. The bill presented to fellow lawmakers at least was a starting point for a deeper exploration of what can been done to prevent deaths on the bridge, Gonzales said.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column in Monday’s and Friday’s print editions.