Advocates applaud planned French King Bridge safety barriers

  • The French King Bridge looking east from Gill to Erving. The state Department of Transportation is planning to install 9-foot safety barriers in 2022. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The existing 3½-foot railings on the French King Bridge. The state is planning safety improvements that include 9-foot safety barriers. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Connecticut River looking through the existing railings of the French King Bridge. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The French King Bridge looking east from Gill to Erving. The state Department of Transportation is planning to install 9-foot safety barriers in 2022. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2021 6:13:55 PM

The planned addition of safety barriers on the French King Bridge in 2022 has been well received by locals, who feel the state has listened to their concerns.

Over the years, the French King Bridge has gained a reputation as a site for suicide attempts. In Gill and Erving, the towns on either side of the bridge, town officials and public safety workers have advocated that the existing railings, which are about 3½ feet tall, are not sufficient, and that taller barriers would make the bridge less of a draw to those contemplating suicide. These efforts have also been taken up by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol.

The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which manages the bridge, has been receptive to these concerns, but slow to act. In 2018, MassDOT prepared several design options for new safety barriers. Town officials in Gill and Erving unanimously chose the same one, which was then incorporated into MassDOT’s five-year budget outlook.

Last week, MassDOT announced that the project is finally moving ahead, with design work set to finish in 2021, and construction planned for the summer of 2022.

Though MassDOT is accepting public comments on the design until next week, the Erving town government has little to add at this point, said Administrative Coordinator Bryan Smith. As he pointed out, it is the same design that town officials already endorsed three years ago.

“We still affirm that this is a priority for the community, and we would like it to proceed,” Smith said.

Fire Chief Philip Wonkka said similarly that he still approves of the design.

“I’m ecstatic that they have finally committed to funding it,” Wonkka said.

Gill town officials are also pleased with MassDOT’s announcement.

“It’s really encouraging that MassDOT is suggesting the kind of timeframe for this project that they are,” said Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington, referring to the 2022 construction date. “That’s much faster than I would have ever hoped.”

“A lot of people pushed hard, over the last year especially,” said Gill Selectboard member Greg Snedeker. “I think it made a difference.”

While many of the people making that push were government officials, not all were.

Stacey Hamel’s advocacy for better safety on the bridge has included public demonstrations there. Though she lives about an hour and a half away, in the town of Oxford, she found out about the French King Bridge in 2018, when she learned that her stepson Bryan Hamel was suspected to have jumped from the bridge. He still has not been found.

Hamel said she likes the design and is pleased that MassDOT is moving along with the project, but added she will probably still follow the project in case it does not go as currently planned.

“Once I can see that it’s done, and I can walk across that bridge and know that some other mom isn’t going to have to walk up there and cry, then I’m good,” she said.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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