Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has defended his multimillion-dollar plan to illuminate New York City bridges and tunnels with multicolored LED lights, by saying the bright lights will draw more tourists to the city, which last year drew a record number of visitors.
Tourism officials in several U.S. cities with LED-lit bridges — including San Francisco, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee — offer primarily anecdotal evidence of a boost in spending in areas overlooking illuminated bridges.
But in those cities and others, philanthropic donations and fundraising campaigns covered the cost of the upgrades.
Cuomo’s “Harbor of Lights” proposal will be funded by the state — prompting complaints that the money would be better spent to repair the city’s breakdown-prone subway system.
The governor’s office has balked at disclosing an estimated cost for the project, saying details of the plan, which was announced last year, are still in the works.
The news website Politico New York has reported that the plan could cost between $216 million and $350 million.
Cuomo aides say the project will be funded through a financing agreement between two state run agencies — Empire State Development Corp. and the New York Power Authority.
“We are still in the process of finalizing the design scheme, scoping and schedule of the project and any discussion of cost at this point are speculative,” said Cuomo’s spokeswoman Abbey Fashour.
John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit that focuses on government transparency, said Cuomo should produce an economic impact study for the lighting project, to allow taxpayers to determine whether the plan produces a worthwhile “return on investment.”
“In the middle of the biggest subway service meltdown in decades, is this really the smartest way to spend what are essentially transit funds?” Kaehny asked. “Given the fact that the subways are the economic driver of the city, which is the economic driver of the state, you have to wonder how it’s possible you get a bigger bang for buck with colored lights over making subways work for people so that they can get to work on time.”
Cuomo has said the state can handle both infrastructure efforts simultaneously.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he told reporters in Manhattan last month, adding that bridge lights are routinely replaced every few years due to wear and tear and moving to energy-efficient LED lights would save on energy costs in the long run.
Cuomo is at odds with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over who should pay for an $836 million subway emergency repair plan. Cuomo says the state will provide half the funding. De Blasio argues that the city already has committed $2.5 billion toward the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital plan, the bulk of which has not been spent.
The “Harbor of Lights” plan calls for LED illumination of the seven bridges and two tunnels operated by the MTA: The Henry Hudson; Whitestone; Throgs Neck; Robert F. Kennedy; Verrazano-Narrows; Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges and Cross Bay Veterans Memorial bridges, and the Queens Midtown and Hugh L. Carey Brooklyn Battery tunnels.
Cuomo says the glowing bridges on special occasions would be synchronized to match the colors of the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, saying they “could be an international tourist attraction.”
Others note that NYC already has its share of iconic attractions, and tourism has been on a steady incline. Last year a record 60 million tourists visited the city, compared with 44 million in 2006, according to city data.
In San Francisco, philanthropists raised $8 million in donations to deck out the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in LED lights capable of displaying animated light shows. The “Bay Lights” project, launched in 2013, has helped draw attention to the bridge and surrounding businesses that often were overshadowed by the Golden Gate Bridge, said Lisa Hasenbalg, a senior director for the San Francisco Travel Association.
Hasenbalg said restaurants in the vicinity of the bridge reported a 30 percent uptick in business once the lights were installed, and online reviews of hotels with views of the bridge often praise the views.
“The reach and the exposure of that is immeasurable,” Hasenbalg said in a telephone interview.
In London, a community foundation has collected nearly half the $25 million needed to illuminate 17 bridges on the Thames River.
In Little Rock, the $2.4 million “River Lights in the Rocks” project put LED lighting on three bridges spanning the Arkansas River beginning in 2013. The program was funded primarily through charitable donations from the region’s power company and other businesses and local groups. Former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation contributed money, while Pulaski County contributed $400,000.
Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the bureau generates income from the bridges by giving organizations hosting events at the convention center the option to pay up to $500 to change the colors of the bridge for a night. Between September 2014 and May 2016, the bureau generated $13,000 from the lighting fees, with all the money going for bridge maintenance.
Although the bureau has not conducted a definitive economic impact study of the program, “we saw a lot of social media uptick in and around the bridges for special events, a lot of posting of pictures, tagging of pictures of the bridges and the skyline,” Hall said.
“We know that people are recognizing them, and seeing them and spreading the word,” she said.