UT engineering students propose changes for dangerous local bridge

Posted at 5:00 PM, May 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-15 18:02:04-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In April, Tennessee lawmakers voted unanimously to condemn the activity around the Natchez Trace Bridge in Williamson Co as a "suicidal health crisis." That's after an effort spearheaded by a coalition formed by those who lost loved ones on the bridge.

But the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition didn't stop there. Members also reached out to the engineering dept at UT Knoxville. And now students are working on solutions to what turns out to be a surprisingly complicated problem.

If you've never seen the Natchez Trace Bridge, it is worth the visit. Stunning vistas and a picture-perfect bridge make it a crown jewel in civil engineering in the state.

But the bridge's beauty hides a dark truth.

Its railings only reach 32 inches high and that has made it a target for people committing suicide. According to freedom of information requests, 32 people have committed suicide by jumping off the bridge since the year 2000.

"It makes our project more meaningful and it's give us motive to do the best work that we can," said UT Civil Engineering student and team leader Nancy Abdo.

Abdo saw the bridge in person for the first time Wednesday, after studying the bridge for an entire semester. She and her senior design team are exploring safety changes to the bridge. But they're up against a lion share of logistical and legal issues.

The bridge is classified as a highway bridge, which allows lower railings. But a parking lot on one side and light traffic on Natchez Trace Pkwy has encouraged pedestrian traffic and photography as the area grows and more people visit.

"For a pedestrian bridge that’s way too low," Abdo said, "it should be at least 42 inches."

Then there are the legal hoops in order to change the existing structure.

"If you're below the bridge or on top, if you take an image it should remain the same and shouldn’t distract too much," Abdo explained.

The Natchez Trace Bridge is on federal land. And regulations won't allow changes that take away from the experience of its beauty or change its original feeling or design intent.

"There's an economic impact, there's construction regular practices and the Park Service looking at this from a retrofit - what does that mean to the historic integrity to the project," explained lecturer Dr. Jenny Retherford.

Retherford is overseeing the student team and says it's been a good real-world lesson for students, who have proposed all types of solutions.

"They went from something highly aesthetic to highly engineer, so when they left the semester the mission was to play around in the middle," she said.

As the semester concluded, students had a few designs floating around, mostly centered around altering the current railing. Designs ranged from standard aluminum railing to cables to Plexiglas.

Next semester they'll help choose a final design, with input from the Natchez Trace Barrier Coalition and the National Parks Service, who students consider their clients on the project.

"We'll explore options that would include railing that would go underneath the bridge or come out sort of like a net system," Abdo said.

And with the National Parks Service on board their design could have a real impact.

"I think they will have a huge influence on what the true solution will be," Dr. Retherford said.

Abdo agreed she's confident the student team will help change the future for the bridge.

"I think we'll drive by (one day) and be very proud of it," she said. She hopes their design can be handed off to professionals who can implement the changes in real life.

That way one day the bridge can simply be known for its beauty alone.

The last update to try to help the problem came 8 years ago when the National Parks Service installed a sign on each side of the bridge with the number for a crisis hot line on it. And in the coming months, the National Parks Service has promised call boxes will be installed to make it easier to call the hot line, along with 911 if needed.

If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, there is help available. Call the state crisis line at 855-CRISIS-1 or 855-274-7471