ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – When Albuquerque’s sun sinks below the horizon, a different, marquee light show comes alive along Interstate 25 and Osuna.
It’s a big, expensive lighting project that’s gained some national attention and become one of the city’s hallmark public art installations.
But that project is now about to cost the city a lot more money because some of those lights haven’t lived up to their long-lasting promise.
When the city of Albuquerque wanted to light up one of its new bridges over I-25, officials called on the Public Art department to make it happen. In May 2013, the Bear Canyon Arroyo pedestrian bridge was lit up with hundreds of blue lights.
While many of the lights on the bridge still create a big blue glow, as KRQE News 13 found out, something has gone wrong with a lot of bridge lights and the city is looking at a big bill to fix it.
The blue light glow comes alive every night over I-25, near Osuna. According to Public Art, the artist designed it to mimic water flowing from the nearby Bear Canyon Arroyo. For many walking across it, the experience is memorable.
“It’s eye appealing,” said Orsino Wagner, an Albuquerque man who walks across the bridge daily to get to and from work.
“I think it’s a perfect fit,” said Wayne Lahi, who owns a home nearby.
Nearly 400 LED light boxes with blue lenses make the Bear Canyon Arroyo pedestrian bridge glow at night. Albuquerque Public Art commissioned a New York City lighting designer to design and implement the project. In all, it cost the city $327,000 in Public Art funds to complete.
“We were all just completely impressed and wowed,” said Sherri Brueggemann, director of Albuquerque’s Public Art program. “This was a really important public art project for our program.”
Brueggemann says she’s still proud of the marquee project. But she admits that the blue lights have become a headache — one that’s set to cost the city hundreds of thousands of more dollars to cure.
Today, dozens of blue bridge lights have gone dark. On September 28, KRQE News 13 counted at least 73 burnt out light boxes on the bridge. It’s noticeable to many people after sunset.
“Yeah, it doesn’t look the same,” Wagner said.
It’s not the LED bulbs that have burnt out. Rather, on many of the light boxes, the circuitry has fried. The city bought the light boxes with the promise that they would last more than 20 years. However, less than two months after their debut, many of the lights had failed.
Public Art says one of the city’s biggest storms in July 2013 caused many of the light boxes to fail.
“On July 26, 2013, some folks may remember that the ‘Chile Hurricane’ came through Albuquerque,” Brueggemann said. “That was an extremely rare storm condition that we weren’t necessarily prepared for.”
Even though the manufacturer told the city the light boxes were waterproof, an up-close look at them up shows the city didn’t get what it was promised. A light box the city provided to KRQE News 13 shows water damage on a Plexiglas topper. A blue lens that covers the LEDs also shows signs of internal weathering.
“These hand-crafted lighting fixtures, some of them suffered water damage,” Brueggemann said. “The seals on some of the lighting fixtures were not as robust as we thought they probably would be.”
In early 2014, News 13 first reported the city was working on a fix for the light boxes officials hoped would be in place by spring 2014. However, the city now says many of the original blue lights are dead, can’t be repaired, and need to be replaced entirely.
“We took some risk on this bridge, and unfortunately we’ve now got to retract and we’ve got to figure out a solution for this,” Brueggemann said.
The Lighting Decision
So how did taxpayers get stuck with the now water logged blue light boxes? The city’s Public Art program says it’s a combination of the artist’s choice and two companies that are now out of business.
Public Art commissioned New York lighting artist Linnaea Tillett of Tillett Lighting Design to complete the project. According to Bruegemann, Tillett is the person who chose a New York company called “Drama Lighting” to handcraft about 380 light boxes on the bridge.
“We do research and development, but (the decision is) with the artist,” Brueggemann said. “We take the amount of risk that we feel comfortable taking.”
According to Brueggemann, Public Art felt comfortable letting Tillett make the decision because she had worked with Drama Lighting on several other successful projects. But after the Bear Canyon Arroyo bridge lighting project was complete, Brueggemann said, Drama Lighting went out of business. The company did not return phone calls or emails for this story on Monday.
“We did our due diligence, going back to the manufacturer, trying to go back to any sort of warranties that were in place … unfortunately, the general contractors and the lighting manufacturer both went out of business right after this project was complete,” she said.
The general contractor that made the bridge was A.S. Horner. That company closed up shop in July. News 13 attempted to reach former representatives of the company on Monday, but found no current phone numbers.
“That’s really where the responsibility would have (lain), and with both of those companies out of business, it left us with very little legal recourse,” Brueggemann said. “When a company folds and there’s no assets left to pursue, there was really nothing we could do.”
When reached by telephone on Monday, artist Linnaea Tillett told KRQE News 13 called the lighting failure a “tremendous disappointment” and a “bad combination of the recession and weather.”
“It is disappointing but, I don’t think, when you work in public space, that you can determine all the variables, there’s always things… always freak things that can happen,” said Tillett.
Public Art says it’s now in the process of replacing the burned-out light boxes. The plan is to use a familiar system: the same one that lights up the Big I and the I-40-Unser overpass.
Brueggemann says a cost estimate puts that replacement at $210,000, which breaks down into two categories: $99,000 for for the new light fixtures and $111,000 for labor to install the lights and provide traffic control on I-25 below the bridge.
Public Art says the plan is to replace the light boxes on the bridge deck first. That stretch alone has 144 light boxes. The original LED light boxes that still work will be used to fill in the gaps on the bridge ramps. The city says it’s confident that the light boxes that still work will last for a long time.
Asked whether she believes Public Art will “take some heat” for the project, in part, Brueggemann said: “The public art program has been around for 37 years. Yeah, we don’t always get every single public art project right off the back, but you know, we continue to make Albuquerque a beautiful place to be.”
In response to the cost of bridge lighting replacement, artist Linnaea Tillett told News 13 that she understands its significance.
“I think we’ve all been through a pretty shaky period in terms of where the economy went, and I think if the city is able to do it, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Tillett.
Public Art says it could get started on the lighting replacement by the end of the year. Much of the funding for the project is dependent on how voters decide the next bond election, which is on the ballot for next month’s city election.