- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2010

California officials can always be counted on to take bad ideas and push them to the extreme - especially when they can do so with your money. The board of directors that oversees San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge voted Friday to take $5 million in federal “congestion mitigation” road funds to design a gigantic suicide-prevention net that will run the length of the 1.7-mile landmark. To pay for the rest of the net’s estimated $50 million cost, board members may impose a $1 toll on the sidewalks for crossing pedestrians and cyclists. (Automobiles already pay $6.)

The combination of tolls with nanny-state overprotectiveness is particularly enlightening. In 1993, a great deal of money was spent installing nearly a dozen suicide hot-line phones that were supposed to offer depressed people an alternative to leaping from the span. It didn’t work, but when government intervention fails, bureaucrats see that as an invitation to intervene even more.

Thus, officials wrestled for years over whether the bridge’s sidewalks should be encased with prisonlike bars to prevent escape or whether a barrier ought to be installed under the bridge to catch jumpers. Though it sounds simple, the plan that won final approval is anything but. “It was surprisingly difficult to arrive at acceptable net options,” one feasibility study explained. An improperly designed net could disturb airflow around the bridge, making it structurally unsound in high winds. That’s why the net isn’t cheap.

For years, drivers have been soaked with ever-increasing bridge tolls, with most of the increases sneakily passed along to commercial truck drivers, who face crossing fees of up to $42 by 2012. Those who buy into the concept of having government nickel and dime taxpayers at every turn through such “user fees” should be leaping for joy at the logical extension of their schemes. If it’s good enough to “manage congestion” for drivers with fees, it ought to be good enough for pedestrians and cyclists.

Not surprisingly, when the sidewalk-access-fee proposal circulated in 2005, irate cycling activists railed so loudly against the “10-speed tax” that the legislature approved a four-year moratorium on the idea. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, terminated the bill, saying the state should not tie the hands of the bridge authorities “by foreclosing certain funding options.” Not all funding options are equal. Tolls on roads and sidewalks represent the least efficient means of raising cash. The primary reason tolls are in vogue is that they are a tax increase that divides the opposition. Cyclist and pedestrian groups, for example, love toll roads until they’re the ones actually paying.

No matter how the money is raised, a bureaucratic suicide-prevention apparatus is not the answer to the problem. Those determined to end their lives are just going to go somewhere else - unless we start installing mandatory nets on all skyscrapers and bridges.

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