The Golden Gate suicide net and the economy of modern government works

Fourteen years ago, the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (“the Bridge District”) looked into making the Golden Gate Bridge more resistant to suicide. Back then, the price tag was guesstimated at $40-50 million. As the project moved to fruition, the price tag rose steadily. The current guestimate is that the final cost for the hideously ugly project will be $222 million, with completion in 2023. And that’s how government projects get done nowadays.

In the 1930s, in lieu of welfare, the government provided money for works projects. On the downside, every penny sucked into government is money that’s not working more efficiently in the private sector. On the upside, though, in the 1930s the government really did build amazing things. The massive Hoover Dam, which was authorized and the funds budgeted before the Depression, took five years to build from start to finish and was an extraordinary effort. If you’ve ever been there, you know that it’s also gorgeous.

Image: The complex architecture of the Golden Gage Bridge by SalieL. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Depression-era government also built the San Francisco Mint, the San Francisco Post Office, the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress, the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Bay Bridge, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The American people actually got bang for the buck.

Part of what made these projects work was that there was so much less regulatory drain on projects. There were no decades-long environmental impact reports, and the public had less say in which public or private lands would be involved. Given the Depression, most people were grateful for anything that would create work and improve America’s infrastructure.

And then you have something like the Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier. To begin with, one can debate whether it improves anything. A best guesstimate is that, on average, there have been 23 suicides per year over the last 85 years. Every one of these is a tragedy for the person lost and the ones left behind.

Having said that, perhaps one could do better than spend hundreds of millions to add an eyesore to one of America’s most beautiful sights. We could certainly do with more mental health support in America, and it might cost a lot less than the barrier.

And then there’s the inefficiency of modern government projects. Examples abound. You can read a bit here about the 1.7 miles of subway track in San Francisco, as well as the Central Valley’s high-speed train to nowhere, both of which have been slow projects with enormous cost overruns. The Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier has now officially added itself to the category of grotesque government cost overruns.

You can see in this post from March 2022 how the project exploded from a $49 million estimate to a $76 million price to a $211 million price to a $213 million price. You can also see how the project has been plagued with endless delays. Work that was supposed to begin in 2014 finally began in 2017, and a project that was to have ended in 2021 is still in progress.

It turns out that even those cost overruns and delays aren’t the end of the story:

The price tag for the Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier, once estimated to be $76 million, might climb as high as $222 million because of continuing construction delays, officials said.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District’s governing board voted unanimously on Friday to approve an $8 million increase toward the project, raising the expenditures from $206.6 million to $214.9 million.

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Originally set to be finished in January 2021, the net is now expected to be completed in December 2023 along the span, according to district staff. Net placements near the north and south towers are expected to be completed in 2025 because of the traveler reconfiguration.

The entire project, including the traveler upgrades, is not expected to be completed until January 2026 — a nearly two-year delay from the last estimate and four years behind the original schedule.

Think about it: $221 million and six years to build a very ugly net protruding out from both sides of the once exquisitely beautiful bridge. Back in the 1930s, it took just four years to build the entire Golden Gate Bridge (which was another Depression-era project)! The entire project cost $530 million in today’s dollars and was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Modern government is a lumbering, inefficient behemoth that burns through time and money, both of value to taxpayers, but neither of concern to the government itself. 

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