Seven arched bridges over the Southwest Freeway were meant to create an iconic gateway into the city. Fiber-optic lights on the spans would not just illuminate them, but also provide a beautiful contrast to the river of concrete below.
The lighting system was wired onto the bridges, in a row from Hazard to Montrose, as part of a massive freeway reconstruction project that concluded a dozen years ago.
Glowing arches hovered over the cars whizzing beneath and connected Houston’s downtown, Montrose and Museum District neighborhoods.
“When they were first turned on, it was spectacular,” said Bill Calderon, executive director of the Montrose Management District. “It was really an awesome sight.”
This luminous effectlasted less than a year.
The lights burned out one by one. Residents soon were complaining that the light tubes were coming loose; remnants today still hang like old shoelaces in areas, while other pieces have broken off. For a decade, budget constraints prevented any fixes.
While best-laid plans oft go astray, there’s a spark of redemption in this case.
Last week, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a $1.4 million federal grant to restore the lighting. As part of the deal, the Montrose Management District will have to match 20 percent – about $357,000 – to go toward the project.
The project will remove all that remains of the old lighting and replace it with an LED system on each of the bridges: Woodhead, Mandell, Dunlavy, Hazard and Graustark, plus a pair of one-way spans on Montrose. The proposal also requires a system to control the color schemeon each bridge throughout the year. Officials envision multicolored lights that can change in unison or independently of one another.
In addition to the new LED system, the project will replace the existing lighting on the bridge decks to provide better illumination for cars, bicycle and pedestrian traffic as well as improve safety, according to the proposal submitted to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Danny Perez, a TxDOTspokesman in Houston, said the technology used for the original bridge lighting turned out not to be reliable, and the department was concerned that replacing it would not be a wise use of funds.
“Funding constraints and concerns about continued maintenance delayed further funding,” Perez said. “Since then, LED lighting technology has advanced in quality and appearance such that we believe any new lights will be much better.”
Since 2011, the Montrose District has been working to get the lights back on. It turned to a program administered by TxDOTthat allows groups to submit applications for federal grants for nontraditional transportation projects, competing with projects from around the state.
More than just bridges
Calderon pointed to beautification and art projects around the city, state and country to make his case.
“Illuminating the bridges to turn them into something more than a functional piece of infrastructure,” he said. “We are thinking that with an appropriate amount of funding, we can re-establish that idea.”
Through an agreement with TxDOT, the Montrose district will receive the funds for the project. The city of Houston and the district agreed to cover the $20,000 annual tab for maintenance and operation. The relighting is estimated to take about two years to complete.
“It will take and create a new and very magnificent identity for the city of Houston internationally,” Calderon said. “It’s a marvel for not only the local folks but a greater example of taking mobility infrastructure and turning it into something way cool.”