Light the Bridges for a Gleaming Downtown
Dressing the Rachel Carson Bridge with 27,000 color-changing LED lights got the public’s attention in 2016. And the popularity of the temporary installation, done as part of the City of Pittsburgh’s bicentennial celebration, bought it an extended 18-month run.
If that’s the case, says former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, why not artistically illuminate all of the major bridges that cross the three rivers that define the city’s geography?
Riverlife, a local nonprofit, commissioned a plan more than 15 years ago for creatively lighting the city’s entire riverfront, including its major bridges. And Allegheny County is scheduled to light four of the bridges it owns. Roddey resurrected the concept for the 2019 Pittsburgh Tomorrow Contest, and the judges felt it was a winner.
Under his proposal, the scope of lighted bridges would span from the West End Bridge across the Ohio River to include the bridges that cross the Allegheny River up to the 31st Street Bridge, and the 10th Street, Smithfield and Birmingham bridges that cross the Monongahela River.
Roddey, whose career included running an advertising business, suggests lighting the bridges on a grand scale could be attention-grabbing enough to promote the city and region without the cost of a national marketing campaign. “Pittsburgh needs to tell its story. We light up the bridges and the news media and social media will take care of it. They’ll tell everybody.”
Creatively lit bridges attracting wide acclaim are found in dozens of cities across the globe, from Lyon and London to New York, Tampa and, closer to home, Johnstown.
Riverlife’s 2004 vision of illuminating the Pittsburgh riverfront included permanent lighting on 16 bridges to creatively highlight the structures. Installing and maintaining such lighting was estimated to cost between $1 million to $3 million per bridge, said Stephan Bontrager, the nonprofit’s vice president of communications and outreach.
In 2015, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto asked the group to explore lighting all 16 bridges for the city’s bicentennial. But the timetable proved too tight to pull off, Bontrager said. “We went back and said, why don’t we work on one of the bridges, do it well on a temporary basis and see if it inspires bridge owners to implement permanent artistic lighting when their bridges undergo rehabbing?”
The result was “Energy Flow,” a colorful installation on the Rachel Carson Bridge that drew its power from small wind turbines and won admiration from residents and public officials alike, helping convince the county to permanently illuminate other bridges it owns.
By 2023, LED lighting is expected to create a glowing tribute to the architecture of the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges across the Allegheny River. Known as the “Three Sisters,” they were designed by the county Department of Public Works and built by the American Bridge Company from 1924–1928. They’re the only trio of nearly identical bridges in the United States and stand as rare examples of the self-anchored suspension bridge. The 10th Street Bridge is also on the list to be lit. “These are great, historic structures,” said Stephen Shanley, director of the Department of Public Works. “Showing them off is something we’ve wanted to do for some time.”
Final cost is pending completion of the final design, which is expected this year. Generally, the piers, towers and pilons will be illuminated and necklace lighting will be used to trace the bridge suspenders in the night sky, said Darla Cravotta, county director of community relations and special projects. “We believe they’ll be timeless in the way they look.”