Sakonnet Bridge’s ‘decorative’ lights: pretty or pollution?

An earlier illustration of the decorative lights shows them shining red, although the state says red and green have been ruled out because they are used for Coast Guard navigation lights. An earlier illustration of the decorative lights shows them shining red, although the state says red and green have been ruled out because they are used for Coast Guard navigation lights.

An earlier illustration of the decorative lights shows them shining red, although the state says red and green have been ruled out because they are used for Coast Guard navigation lights.

An earlier illustration of the decorative lights shows them shining red, although the state says red and green have been ruled out because they are used for Coast Guard navigation lights.

They haven’t even been switched on yet, but the decorative lights meant to add a “signature touch” to the new Sakonnet River Bridge already have their critics.

Installed on the bridge deck’s light poles, the LED lights are arrayed to point upward along the poles to create vertical lines of colored light. The poles themselves hold white lights that illuminate the bridge roadway.

The decorative lights “can be changed to almost any color except for red or green, which are used by the Coast Guard for navigational purposes,” said R.I. Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman Bryan Lucier.

“This technology allows the lights to remain one color or even be changed to commemorate a holiday or special event, much like what is done with the State House dome in Providence,” he said.

That choice would be up to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority as owner of the bridge, he said.

The decorative lights were added to the plans “after the local communities requested a signature look for the new bridge,” Mr. Lucier said.

A recent DOT rendering of the decorative Sakonnet River Bridge lights that will be turned on soon.

A recent DOT rendering of the decorative Sakonnet River Bridge lights that will be turned on soon.

Structural options, such a lights along suspension bridge cables or cable stays, were ruled out after that sort of bridge design was deemed too costly.

So, DOT worked instead “on ways to incorporate architectural elements into the bridge. The LED lights were one of these elements,” Mr. Lucier said. “The renderings were presented to Portsmouth and Tiverton residents during the public hearing process and received positive feedback.”

Lighting costs for the bridge totaled about $1 million with the LEDs accounting for an estimated $650,000.

Some who live near the bridge reported seeing the lights briefly a couple of weeks ago but said that they were then switched off.

Asked about that, Mr. Lucier said, “The LED lights have been installed on one side of the bridge and the contractor has been testing them recently. The installation on the opposite side is ongoing. Because electrical work is weather-dependent, we have recently been delayed by the heavy rains. However, we expect the lighting to be installed and operational soon.”

Called ‘light pollution’

Although the DOT reports that audiences at public hearings responded favorably to illustrations of the decorative lights, not all who have seen the real thing are so impressed.

In a recent letter to the editor, bridge neighbor Bruce Epke of Tiverton asked, “Am I really to spend the rest of my days with purple and red flashing ‘light sabers’ in the middle of my water view? How would you like them towering over your back yards?”

Calling them “ugly in the extreme,” he concluded, “please pull the plug; that’ll save a few pennies too.”

Amateur astronomers are also railing against the lights. Pete Peterson and George Huftalen of the Astronomical Society of Southern New England (ASSNE) have not seen the colorful, vertical lights on the bridge yet, but they have viewed rendered illustrations provided by DOT. Both say the lights are not only unnecessary and wasteful, they’ll do nothing but add to the increasing problem of light pollution in the local area.

“Some people think projecting lights into the sky is artistic,” said Mr. Peterson, a Barrington resident who views the stars at his backyard Wishing Star Observatory.

It’s particularly sad, he said, because the Sakonnet area doesn’t have an excess of street lights. “It has a lovely dark sky down there, and now you’re going to be throwing light pollution into the sky,” he said.

Mr. Huftalen said he hopes the bridge won’t turn into another Iway in Providence. Built as part of the relocation of the Interstate 195 and 95 intersection, that bridge has been scorned by astronomers ever since.

“If they light up the sky like that darn 195 bridge — that is a travesty,” he said. “It’s horrible. It’s a sin they’re putting all that light into the sky. It doesn’t need to be that brightly lighted. We have headlights on our cars for a reason.”

Ecological impact

He also said the vertical lights on the Sakonnet Bridge could have long-lasting ecological impacts.

“This is going to screw up bats, it’s going to screw up all kinds of migrating birds. I’m not a scientist in this area, but I know studies have shown that migrating birds and bats have been confused over what’s day and night,” said Mr. Huftalen. “The Department of Transportation keeps doing it, doing it, and they have no knowledge of what they’re doing.”

Even the critics agree, however, that the Sakonnet Bridge’s new white streetlights aren’t all bad. Mr. Epke called them “incredibly effective” and much more attractive when viewed from afar than the old sodium vapor lights.

Mr. Peterson said they’re full cutoff street lights, which aim the beam downward instead of off to the side or up.

“I was key in converting Barrington to full cutoff,” Mr Peterson said, adding that the lamps save money because they require less energy. “Back in 2007 I measured these lamps and found that the 50-watt full cutoff generated more light on the roadway than the 100-watt ‘cobra head.’  Why? Because all the light is being focused on the roadway instead of into the sky or someone’s bedroom window.”

For more about light pollution and suggestions for the best local places for star-gazing, pick up a copy of this week’s (July 3) Portsmouth Times.

Reporting by Bruce Burdett and Jim McGaw.

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One Comment;

  1. Margaret Smyth said:

    The decorative lights were added to the plans “after the local communities requested a signature look for the new bridge.”

    I’m sorry, I just cannot believe this. As a resident on the Tiverton Basin waterfront who attended most of the meetings I thought we were trying to minimize the effect of the bridge on the community, not exacerbate it. To add unnecessary light pollution from these “sabers” is a horrible idea.

    Perhaps a couple of times a year, e.g. red white and blue for one day on July 4th, but no more, please!

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