After years of lobbying, efforts by local and statewide advocates to prevent suicides at the Natchez Trace Bridge are finally paying off.
The Federal Highway Administration and National Park Service have earmarked $1.25 million in funding to begin securing a pedestrian barrier for the bridge, which stretches 1,572 feet across the valley below.
The double-arch bridge, which is part of the Natchez Trace and is about eight miles from downtown Franklin, is where at least 32 people have taken their lives since it was built in 1994. The local landmark is known for its beautiful design, soaring views and low railings.
According to Mary Risser, superintendent of Natchez Trace Parkway, her staff began working with the Federal Highway Administration in 2015 to identify a barrier design that would help prevent suicides.
The initial funding will take the organizations through the first phase, including compliance, of a multi-step project that could ultimately result in the beginning of construction on a barrier by August of 2023.
In Phase 1, Risser said between five and 10 alternatives will be developed, with analysis on three to five of them to see if the bridge is capable of carrying an additional load. Risser admitted that it is possible that an initial analysis may determine that the bridge is unable to support any type of barrier.
Still, local advocates are hopeful.
State Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), who was the sponsor of a joint house resolution recognizing the crisis at the bridge during the legislative session earlier this year, said he was glad to see the quick reaction from the governor and state.
Whitson also recognized Congressman Mark Green and his office for their support of the issue, and the nascent bridge barrier coalition.
Tragedy touches close to home
After Trish Merelo lost her teenage son, Brentwood High School senior John Miller, to suicide at the bridge in January of 2016, she wanted to find a way to make a change in her own community.
In October of 2018, Merelo teamed up with Sarah Elmer, who lost her sister Danielle to suicide at the bridge, to form the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition.
Over time, she connected with local law enforcement officers, suicide prevention experts, mental health advocates and other survivors to advocate for a change to reduce deaths at the bridge.
“We’re absolutely thrilled the NPS has agreed to work toward a barrier solution,” Merelo said of the news.
In addition to the funding, solar-powered call boxes, which the National Park Service promised as a solution in 2017, should finally be operational by Aug. 27. The phone lines will direct calls to 911 and to the Tennessee Statewide Crisis Line, 855-CRISIS-1.
“The call boxes going in is an important supplement to the barrier plan,” Merelo said. “They’ll provide a way for those experiencing a suicidal crisis to press pause and seek help, as well as provide a way for bystanders to call for help if they see someone in trouble. Anything that interrupts the suicidal impulse is critical.”