Arts & Culture

Houston First Corporation assessing how to get broken Montrose-area 59/69 bridge lights back on

A series of decorative lights above the Southwest Freeway, installed before Houston last hosted the Super Bowl in 2017, have not been functioning for months.


A series of decorative bridge lights installed above the Southwest Freeway in 2017 have not worked for months, according to the Houston First Corporation.

Six years ago this month, when Houston last hosted the Super Bowl, six bridges that cross part of the Southwest Freeway had been freshly adorned with bright, colorful lights that were eye-popping and awe-inspiring for both residents and visitors alike.

Now, as the city prepares to host the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament in early April, the lights have long gone dark and that stretch of the freeway – in the bustling Montrose area between downtown and the site of the upcoming games at NRG Stadium – looks much like any other freeway.

The lights are technically still switched on, according to the organization that has assumed responsibility for them, but they have not worked for months. And it likely will be at least that long before they are illuminated again.

"The switches are on. We just don't have many lights at all that are working," said Holly Clapham, the chief marketing officer for the Houston First Corporation. "I was told there may be a few flickering lights. ... It's a lighting system failure."

Clapham said Houston First, a local government corporation that manages city-owned properties and serves as the city's sales and marketing arm, is conducting a diagnostic assessment of the lights at the direction of city leadership, with the goal of figuring out how to get them back on along with how to maintain them and fund their operation on a long-term basis. That assessment began within the last few months, Clapham said, and could be completed by late spring or early summer.

Clapham said Houston First agreed to take responsibility for the decorative lights in 2019 after their original creator and steward, the Montrose Management District, went dormant in 2018. The lights had been installed ahead of the Super Bowl in 2017 through a partnership between the management district and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which owns the freeway as well as the bridges that cross them, supervised the lights' installation and subsequently entered into the agreement with Houston First, according to Clapham.

Since Houston First does not have expertise in lighting or bridges, Clapham said it is seeking the input of industry experts as part of the ongoing assessment. The goal is to come up with a viable long-term plan as opposed to a short-term fix, she said, and to ensure the lights won't break down again.

Decorative lights remain on the Montrose Boulevard bridge that crosses the Southwest Freeway in Houston, but they no longer work, according to the Houston First Corporation.

"It would not be worth anyone's time for us to make the same mistakes," Clapham said. "We don't want Houston to be disappointed."

The cost to install the lights was a little more than $3 million, according to TxDOT. They began to fail a few months after Houston First took over their operation, shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, according to Clapham, who said the warranty for the lights had expired by that point.

More and more of the lights gradually stopped working after that, according to Clapham, who said they have proven not to be compatible with newer lighting technology. Following the Super Bowl in 2017, the color-changing LED lights had also been used to commemorate occasions such as the Houston Astros' first World Series championship later that year as well as Pride Month every June.

After the Montrose Management District could no longer pay the electricity bills associated with operating the lights, Clapham said the city made an arrangement to have those costs covered. Mary Benton, a spokesperson for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said in an email that NRG Energy agreed to cover electricity costs for the bridge lights.

“Houston First is asked to maintain the lighting system because it is part of the iconic city of Houston branding,” Benton added.

Determining how best to maintain and fund the lights' operation moving forward is part of the assessment being conducted by Houston First, which plans to consult with TxDOT, among other entities. Another factor being considered is TxDOT's planned expansion of Interstate 45 near and north of downtown, which is on hold pending the completion of an environmental and civil rights investigation by the Federal Highway Administration.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT's Houston office, said the stretch of the Southwest Freeway where the bridge lights are located would be impacted by the I-45 project. From east to west, the bridges that include the lights are on Montrose Boulevard, Graustark Street, Mandell Street, Dunlavy Street, Woodhead Street and Hazard Street.

"When it moves forward," Perez said of the I-45 project, "that particular stretch would be part of the reconstruction."

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