Bay Lights Go Dark for Caltrans Maintenance on Bay Bridge

Over the last two years, the Bay Bridge, sometimes referred to as the "working man’s bridge," has had an extra fancy sparkle courtesy of thousands of twinkling LED lights. Artist Leo Villareal’s 1.8-mile art installation, known as the Bay Lights Project, has dazzled visitors who have ventured down to San Francisco’s waterfront.

But alas, all good twinkling things must come to an end and on Friday morning as the sun comes up, the Bay Lights will fade to black for the last time. At least for now.

The project has reached the end of its permitted two-year run and Caltrans needs to perform maintenance to the bridge cables. So the strands of LED lights responsible for the bridge’s shape-shifting light extravaganza will be removed in the coming months.

“They’ll leave a 1.8-mile hole in the night sky of San Francisco,” said Ben Davis, who envisioned the project and helped secure the money and permits to install the project.

But for fans of the lights, the good news is that black hole won’t stay a black hole forever. Davis’ group, Illuminate the Arts, raised $4 million to re-install the project in 11 months -- in time for the Bay Area to host the Super Bowl in 2016. After that, the group will turn the project over to Caltrans and the Bay Bridge Authority to keep it going for the unforeseeable future.

“So our expectation is they’ll really stay forever,” Davis said.

Davis said the next version of the lights will be more robust, and able to better weather the bridge’s tough conditions; salt air, wind and the pounding of thousands of cars every day have caused the lights to malfunction at times during its two-year run.

Among fans sad to see the lights go, even temporarily, are San Francisco businesses along the waterfront. Pete Sittnick, General Manager of Epic Roasthouse said the lights have inspired his guests, as well as the cash register, boosting reservations over the project’s two-year run.

“Well we know we’re going to have some challenges,” said Sittnick, “because people will come in and expect the lights will still be there.”

Ultimately Sittnick unwittingly proved the connection that kept the project going. He mentioned the project's potential demise to philanthropist Tad Taube who it turns out had a soft spot for the lights. He ended-up kicking in $2 million if Illuminate the Arts could find another $2 million in matching donations, which it did.

“I just couldn’t imagine for a moment this incredible lighting display we had that was created by Leo was going to be gone,” said Taube.

Taube, who has helped fund the San Francisco Symphony, the opera and numerous museums around the world, said the Bay Lights Project touched many people.

“Probably of all the philanthropic projects that I’ve ever been involved in,” said Taube, “I would guess this one has to impact the lives of more people than any other.”

On Thursday night at 7:30 pm, the project will host a farewell party behind Waterbar on the Embarcadero. The first thousand people will get a souvenir light. The next morning at sunrise, a symphony quartet will play as the lights fade off to slumber, which ultimately will be more like an eleven-month nap.

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