Special Reports

Likely the best show in town

New York’s Mid-Hudson Bridge uses LED lights to create a scene that is as entertaining as it is aesthetic. The prize for America’s most-wired bridge clearly goes to the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where microprocessors, fiber-optic cables and LEDs give programmers a palette of more than 16.7 million colors to play with.

They can even make the bridge shimmy and dance in time to music.

The 3,000-foot-long suspension bridge has been a focal point for the Poughkeepsie area ever since it was finished in 1930. Many local companies use its image on their stationary and business cards.

In the 1990s, the Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce, wanting to increase the bridge’s prominence, approached the New York State Bridge Authority and asked about installing decorative lights.

The authority agreed, but at the time, the cost of installing and maintaining lights on the cables was so high that its budget allowed only eight 4,000-watt spotlights on the towers.

In 2000, the chamber tried again, and, this time, LED technology had advanced enough to make cable lights feasible.

According to Greg Herd, the authority’s director of information technology, the initial cost of buying and installing the LEDs was slightly more than conventional lights – $600,000 versus $500,000 – but the deal clincher was the projected savings on electricity and maintenance.

Maintaining conventional lights would have cost $50,000 to $70,000 a year, he said, whereas maintaining the LEDs would cost just $1,800. (The money came from proceeds from the modest tolls on the bridge: $1 per car for a round trip, with discounts for regular commuters.)

“We put out an RFP (request for proposal) for companies to come in with their ideas,” Herd said. “We told them, ‘Show us what you got.’”

The winner was a collaborative effort by the Boston architectural-lighting firm, Color Kinetics, and the Long Island lighting manufacturer, MagniFlood.

In just three months, the contractors installed 142 fixtures with 250 LEDs each on the maintenance walkways above the main cables, 40 feet apart. The LEDs came in just three colors, red, green and blue, but, thanks to microprocessors, can morph into more than 16.7 million colors.

“Basically,” Herd said, “we can make any color in the world. The human eye can only see 1.8 million.”

The bridge authority planned a gala lighting ceremony for Sept. 12, 2001, but, after the terrorist attacks the previous day, called off the bands and dignitaries. Instead, it turned on the lights without fanfare, choosing red, white and blue for the inaugural event.

In the intense rush of feeling that followed 9/11, the sight of the bridge coming to life with patriotic colors brought many to tears. “It was the most surreal, somber moment of my life,” Herd said.

The bridge lights have been a big hit ever since, said Herd, the lucky guy who gets to program the light shows and fiddle with the controls.

Herd has done moving rainbows; he turns the bridge red and green at Christmas; blue on Hanukkah; white, pink, red on Valentine’s Day. On Halloween, he has had orange chasing down one cable and up the other.

On rare, special occasions, he’s even taken a computer with touch-screen controls to a riverfront restaurant and let patrons use their own imaginations to paint the bridge as they watch from a distance.

Studies have shown the lights have had no effect on traffic safety, he said, and the bridge authority has had no complaints that they are gaudy or inappropriate. Unless, he said, you count the driver who tossed a bill at the toll collector and snarled, “Here’s a dollar for your disco lights.”

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