Bridge Project Faintly Flickering; Funds Force Scaled-Down Millennium Plan

Never mind those Y2K fears about widespread power outages. Some of Seattle's lights will never come on in the first place.

The city once planned to ring in the millennium with a grand display of wattage: nine bridges and four parks awash in light. The bright idea was one of Paul Schell's first as mayor, and he called it the Millennium Legacy Lighting Project. The lights were to remain on year-round.

There were design schemes, mock-ups and trials, oohs and ahhs, committees and consultants. But in the end, there wasn't enough cash.

"We realized it was a great idea, but practicality ruled," said Terry Wittman, director of the Seattle Millennium Project.

Now the plan has been scaled down to two bridges, and only one of those will be lit up for New Year's Eve. That is the Dr. Jose P. Rizal Bridge on 12th Avenue South, which leads to Beacon Hill.

The city will hold a ceremony at 5 p.m. this Thursday the day honoring Rizal (1861-96) a patriot, poet and novelist, in the Philippines. Schell will flip the switch 20 minutes later.

City officials had also hoped to light up the Aurora Bridge, but they lack the final permit and the funds. Only half of the $300,000 needed from private sources has been raised, for the Aurora project, Wittman said. Altogether, the budget for lighting both bridges, including design costs incurred by the city, tops $1 million, according to figures provided by City Light spokesman Bob Royer.

It would cost another $10,000 a year to keep the bridges lighted.

The city hoped to finance the project through corporate sponsorship and private donations, but has raised just $150,000, Wittman said.

"We continue to work on the Aurora Bridge," Royer said last week. "And we will light that when we can both afford it and are permitted to do so."

The city has obtained several of the needed permits, but because it wants to put one of its light poles in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on the plan. The pole would go on top of piling, and the federal agency is considering the effect on boat traffic, wildlife and the neighbors. Five other poles - 75 feet high with 32 floodlights - would be installed on land.

A decision could come soon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has told the corps the bald eagle and Puget Sound bull trout won't be harmed. There are no eagle nests within a mile of the bridge, although the birds are known to hunt there at dusk, said Lori Morris, a project manager for the corps.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing the impact on Puget Sound chinook. The agency has asked the city for more information before it makes a recommendation to the corps.

Morris doesn't think salmon will be adversely affected, as long as the city keeps the lights off from April to August, during the chum's annual run through the Ship Canal. The city wants to bathe the Aurora Bridge in a swath of blue light, but that light would reflect back on to the water. Blue light penetrates more deeply than yellow light, which would allow other fish, such as bass, to better see and feed on the young fish, Morris said.

The corps also is considering opinions from the public. Neighbors aren't happy about the poles or the illumination. They fear vandals will throw rocks or bottles from the bridge to smash the lights. Some are concerned about property values.

And others don't want to look out from their houseboats and see a blue beacon of light splashed across the water.

Marilyn Perry, who has lived on a houseboat just southwest of the bridge for 30 years, said the structure already offers beautiful reflections, depending on the sky. "It never occurred to me the bridge needed to be bright blue," she said.

City officials say that shields on the light poles will prevent glare. And they hope the public, once it sees the Dr. Jose P. Rizal Bridge in all its glory and glow, will support the Aurora project.

"It's just gorgeous," Wittman said of the bridge during testing. "It really is pretty."

Perry failed to see the light. "It really illustrated the underside of the concrete flanks," she countered.

The lights on both bridges would be on from dusk until midnight Sundays through Thursdays and until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Wittman says the Aurora Bridge could be lit up before Earth Day, April 22, the official end of the city's 15-month millennium observance. The overall project includes festivals, volunteer work and environmental projects. "We just planted our 10,000th tree this week," Wittman said.

The celebration culminates with five days of events at Seattle Center beginning Sunday. While the city has struggled with its lighting plans, owners of the Space Needle plan to turn on a sky beam above the tower from Dec. 30 through Jan. 2.

Jeff Hodson's phone message number is 206-464-3779. His e-mail address is Times staff reporter J. Martin McOmber contributed to this report.