Local

Lights out for bridges?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

They call it the Gateway to Houston. Finished just a few years ago, it was a multi-million dollar expansion in which crews reworked bridges over the Southwest Freeway. Now some expensive lights meant to beautify the project are starting to burn out and replacing the lights will be costly.

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If you drive the stretch of Highway 59 between Mandell and Shepherd, you may have noticed something missing. Once-bright fiber optic lights intended to brighten this corridor of the city are now a dimly lit hallway at best.

Drexel Turner was on a citizens committee to help the Texas Department of Transportation's re-construction of the Southwest Freeway in the early 2000s. With a $100 million price tag, the plan was to add a few bells and whistles along the way.

"In a certain way, the freeways do define Houston," said Turner.

On the six arched bridges, you can see architectural accents by day. As the sun sets, the plan was to keep the bridges shining over what Turner calls the river of cars below.

"Having bridges that really make a statement going over our little concrete river, it's a great thing to have," he said.

So for a price tag of $275,000, fiber optic lights were added to each bridge. The project was finished in two phases, in 2003 and 2006, with 80% of federal dollars and 20% state and local.

"They really no longer work. You can see a few glimpses as you go by at night," said Turner.

Karen Othon of TxDOT says the state is aware the lights are out and that some are even hanging from the bridge.

"It's not the full picture. It's not what they were intended to be," said Othon.

She adds they have been a maintenance challenge.

"It's not like we can just take a bucket truck up there on a freeway lane and replace a light bulb, it's such a specialized issue," said Othon.

The California company that made the lights claims a little maintenance every six months should keep them shining brightly. Any warranties on the lights have now expired.

Crews at the bridge on Wednesday said they were working on repairing peeling paint. TxDOT is not sure if the lights can be repaired or may now have to be replaced at taxpayers' expense.

"We apologize that this has happened. We didn't realize these lights would not continue working this far after construction," said Othon.

Drexel Turner says this is certainly not what the committee had in mind.

"Right now the bridges need a little help. The lights need to go back on," said Turner.

TxDOT and the light manufacturer are talking but so far they have not come up with a definite solution to get the lights back on.

So until there's a solution, the so-called Gateway to Houston will continue to fade after dark.

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