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Thousands of people gathered near the Bay Bridge to see the official debut of The Bay Lights.
Ben Davis was worried.
After raising millions of dollars, enlisting a top visual artist, and convincing San Francisco and Caltrans to install 25,000 twinkling lights on the Bay Bridge, he was facing catastrophic failure.
“No one wants to see this piece come down,” Davis said Friday with his back to the Bay.
In May, Davis and his team noticed strands of the lights were staying on, while others were shutting off.
The problem seemed to be spreading, with 30-percent of the lights malfunctioning in some areas, marring artist Leo Villareal’s vast moving display.
Technicians walked the bridge, inspecting the strands of lights strapped to the cables, suspecting the wind, salt air and constant vibrations as the culprits.
“In taking in what was going on they figured out there’s a little bit of water was seeping in due to that harsh environment,” said Davis. “That was just enough to cause those problems.”
With the lights failing at a rapid pace, Davis pondered the worst-case scenario; turning off the lights and taking them down.
But instead, his team rallied.
Artist Leo Villareal reprogrammed the lights to work around the malfunctioning strands.
And light manufacturer Philips Color Kinetics agreed to finance repair and replacement of the lights as well as figure out a long-term solution.
“They’ve come in, they’ve helped us assess the problem,” said Davis. “They’ve owned the problem and the solution and they’re being completely responsible.”
Davis said crews would begin replacing some of the broken strands in about ten days. He said the short-term repairs are aimed at keeping the lights working through the America’s Cup Yacht Races and the scheduled opening of the new Eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
“It’ll be a bit of a trench war for us,” said Davis. “People won’t be aware of it but we’ll be replacing some strands over the summer because we think there will be continued failure.”
Davis admits the plans so far are short-term. He said major work will begin in the Fall to redo the entire project, which may include replacing significant portions, if not all the lights.
Davis announced Friday his group had secured a donation of $1.5 million dollars from WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, which put the project at its full funding goal of $8 million.
Suddenly, Davis says he can see the twinkling lights at the end of the tunnel.
“This thing is going to stay up,” he said, “and it’s going to stay up and shining and look beautiful through the course of the summer.”