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Gateway to Providence
The Pawtucket River Bridge

by Allie Lapporte, LASN

Gateway to Providence

The Pawtucket River Bridge, located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island near Providence, was designed in part by a team from Abernathy Lighting Design led by Jason Rainone, IALD, LEED AP, who integrated white and color-changing LED lights into the bridge to create a community emblem out of a transportation amenity.

Native Americans call the place where trails meet to cross a river Pawtucket, which is also the name of a small Rhode Island city near the state's capital. During the 18th century, settlers crossed the Pawtucket River seeking religious freedom in the Rhode Island Colony and built a small bridge over the body of water. In the 19th century, the bridge spanning the river became a commercial thoroughfare, and by the mid-20th century, interstate 95 was the most traveled highway in the nation, and in 1958, a new Pawtucket River Bridge was built to carry I-95 traffic over the Pawtucket River.

By the time the city of Pawtucket entered the 21st century, the city was ready for a new piece of infrastructure. An electrical engineering firm called Glaskell Electric was brought onto a team to replace the old bridge with something new. However, the stakeholders in the city wanted the new bridge to have lighting that changed color with the seasons. As the team at Glaskell Electric was not well-versed in this kind of lighting, they called in lighting designers from Abernathy Lighting Design (ALD) to create an artistic lighting design for the bridge.

Gateway to Providence

The bridge's default color is a bright blue. Interested parties often contact the Rhode Island DOT to request a change in color for local events. The DOT organizes color changes for global events or in memoriam of notable deaths. There are in-grade uplights illuminating the flat face of the four pylons and in the Pleasant Street underpass to the left.

According to Jason Rainone, IALD, LEED AP, principal lighting designer at ALD, his team was told to think of the bridge as a "gateway" in all forms of the word. "One side of the bridge is Providence; the other side is Pawtucket, so it's a literal gateway in that sense of the word," stated Rainone. "However, it is also a bridge with a road that runs under it, so there is a certain overarching gateway look to how the bridge was designed."

The city of Pawtucket wanted the bridge to be able to change colors, to reflect the seasons and be a visually impactful structure within the area. The team designed both the traditional white lighting for the bridge as well as the hue-changing ones.

Gateway to Providence

Gateway to Providence

The bridge's lighted abutment pylons on the bridge reference the Art Deco bas relief eagles that mark the entrance to Pawtucket City Hall. The linear outlines for the pylons are 3000K white linear LEDs.

What immediately inspired Rainone and his team was the simplicity of the bridge's new design, created by structural engineers from Commonwealth Engineering. They did not want to impose anything on the bridge that it did not already have, from a structural or thematic standpoint. "All we really wanted to do was add a lighting dimension to the forms and structures that were already there," said Rainone.

Highlighting the structure of the bridge, the ALD team created an internally illuminated environment in the arch way underneath the bridge. According to Rainone, "It really gives the underside of the bridge a kind of a lantern effect at night. It feels like a safe environment because the surroundings are illuminated." The girders underneath the bridge create a contrast between light and shadow that reflects in the water below.

Gateway to Providence

This basic outline of the bridge was sketched on a napkin by one of the structural engineers for the project while he was at dinner. Rainone explained that the simplicity in the lines of the bridge, showcased in the sketch, helped inspire the ALD team's lighting design choices.

Maintenance Mishaps
Some challenges that cropped up during the design had to do with the maintenance of the bridge itself. The design team originally planned to use vertical light poles that were going have a color-changing effect going across the bridge, mounted every 50 feet or so. However, that idea never moved forward. When they presented their plan to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, one of the maintenance workers explained that the city's snow plows throw snow over the sides of the bridge into the river, which would not work well with the planned poles.

Even when they decided on the strips of LED fixtures that span the length of the bridge, the logistics of maintenance gave the designers pause. The bridge is 100 feet over a river. As Rainone stated, "You're either talking about a bucket truck that's got to swing some poor guy over the side of it in order to do maintenance or floating a barge with a crane on it down the river to get under this bridge." The ALD team worked with the fixture manufacturers to connect the LED fixtures to a long lead cable. The cable connects to a handhold that is accessible from the roadway side of the parapet at the top of the bridge. Everything from that connection out to the fixture is factory sealed, limiting the need for dangerous maintenance maneuvers.

Gateway to Providence

Here the LED color-changing lights on the bridge were changed to glow red, white and blue in honor of Independence Day. The span and four sculptures on the top of the bridge are lit with RGB color-changing linear LED.

The power supplies for all of those LED fixtures are housed in the four aluminum sculptures that sit on the four abutment pylons. ALD worked with the sculptor that designed those units, the fabricator that created them and the electrical engineers to find a way to build structural mounting channel style racks on the inside of those pylons. There are removable doors on the slanted back sides of each sculpture that allow a person to get inside and maintain all of the power supplies that are associated with the lighting on the span of the bridge.

A Bridge of a Different Color
The color-changing lights on the sides of the bridge are usually a bright blue, the default color of the design. However, there are 18 pre-programmed holiday color designs that occur throughout the year. One challenge that Rainone recounted was how to pin down the coding to make sure the bridge changed to the correct colors on the right day.

Gateway to Providence

The lights on the underside of the bridge were designed to reach up into the girders and reflect in the river below, creating an illuminated effect that envelops the entire space under the structure. The arches under the bridge are lit with metal halide spotlights mounted below each end of the arch, casting light along the underside while the abutments are lit with similar metal halide spotlights washing light upward.

"Do you know how they figure out when Easter is? Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Try telling a computer that. We had to work with a specialist from the playback device manufacturer to figure out how to write the code that would tell the computer when some of these holidays were, and there was no easy solution for Easter. They had to write a table that tells the computer when Easter is every year for the next 25 years. So, 25 years from now, someone is going to have to go out and actually update it with the next 25 years' worth of Easters."

The bridge's colors can also change for local events and global occurrences. While this can inspire a sense of celebration and community, the DOT did not want to send out a truck out to the lighting controller every time somebody had a special event.

Gateway to Providence

When the musical artist Prince died, the DOT made the bridge purple for a week in honor of the man's trademark color and one of his most well-known songs, Purple Rain.

ALD initiated a remote console which is accessible from the DOT Command Center room, which is on capitol hill in downtown Providence. It is several miles away from the bridge, but those in the command room have the ability through a web interface to log into the controller that runs the bridge and put in temporary overrides that will allow the bridge to be something different for a period of time before that timer expires and it goes back to whatever its normal programming is.

Rainone shared, "We didn't really think it was going to be an icon when we designed the bridge, but people use things for different reasons. It has the ability to be tailored both local and world events, to be sort of a reflection of the community it's a part of."

Team List
Lighting Design: Jason Rainone & Kathy Abernathy LC, FIALD (ALD)
Owner: Rhode Island Department of Transportation
Architect: Richard Ventrone (Ventrone Architecture)
Structural Engineer: Vartan Shahakian & Mark Greenleaf (Commonwealth Engineers & Consultants, Inc.)
Electrical Engineer: Gary Hebner (Gaskell Associates)
Control Systems Integrator: Barbizon Light of New England

As seen in LASN magazine, April 2019.

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December 13, 2019, 6:30 am PDT

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