The brilliant light display capable of projecting 16 million different shades above the river connecting Omaha and Council Bluffs has given the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge back its dazzle.
These days spectators are seeing dancing candy canes on high. A ball-dropping light show is planned for New Year's Eve.
How the icon got its color back in time for this past Thanksgiving includes behind-the-scenes details as captivating as the end product. The story involves, among other characters, a pair of electrical engineers who hail from separate ends of the bridge, a crude box that held a solution to the fix and a race to get the new lighting system up and running in time for the city's holiday ceremony.
The original luminaire system at the tops of two pillar-like pylons on the $22 million bridge never really worked correctly beyond opening week in 2008. Though repair plans had been percolating for a few years, they ramped up around February. Omaha wanted the lighting system operable by Thanksgiving Day.
For Doug Nelsen and Kelly Carman, Leo A Daly engineers whose lighting team was tasked with finding a workable design, the clock started ticking in March when they sat down with city officials to clarify what needed to be done.
Pressure was on not only because the bridge was so high-profile, but because nobody knew for certain why the original lights, donated by Gallup and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation, had failed. One theory was lightning. Workers also found water pooled in electrical boxes.
Would unknown circumstances strike again?
“Obviously nothing is foolproof,” said Nelsen, whose speciality is lighting. “But we tried to consider anything and everything that could possibly go wrong. We had to nail it.”
He and lighting project manager Carman pored over old plans for the bridge designed by Kansas City firm HNTB. They analyzed alternative fixtures. They studied grounding, anti-lightning, surge protection and countless other technicalities.
Then they bought some wood at a local Lowe's outlet. The resulting box model might have looked like an eighth-grade science project, but it was built to mirror one of the 54 rectangles that would light up the two pylons that towered 200 feet above the river.
Engineers typically rely on computers for renderings and calculations, Nelsen said. But the team's simple mock-up that sat on a conference room table allowed better visualization of various lighting options. He and Carman were able to move the LED lights fixture around the box to see which position provided the best glow.
“We played with all angles,” Nelsen said.
In the end, they decided to aim the lights upward inside the rectangular pieces, rather than downward, as they had been in the original design. The new way would hide the fixtures as well.
To steer clear of lingering problems, all lights and controls were replaced with new units. Maintenance safety features were enhanced. Everything was sealed to increase weather resistance.
“It's all more robust and appropriate for that kind of environment,” said Carman. “We put surge protection everywhere we could.”
The engineers finished the design in June. Parts had to be ordered and installed, contractors secured.
“It was not an easy process,” said acting City Parks and Recreation Director Brook Bench. “I can assure you that.”
He recalled the wind shifting from calm to 30 mph gusts that at times had electricians swaying on ladders and hydraulic lifts.
Smooth communication and coordination with general contractor Omaha Electric Service helped beat the deadline, said Carman, although “it came down to the wire.”
On the eve of the Nov. 21 public reveal, an anxious Nelsen toted his two sets of twins (3-year-olds and 7-year-olds) downtown to check on the portion of lights that had been left on as a test. All was well.
The next day Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan met as planned on the state line of the bridge. As they placed a friendly wager on the next day's Nebraska-Iowa game, the dueling pylons glowed on high — one red and the other gold — to represent the respective team colors.
Carman, who graduated from Iowa State, and Nelsen, an alumnus of the University of Nebraska's Peter Kiewit Institute, were rooting for different squads yet stood united in their pride for the lighting project.
“With high risk comes high reward,” said Carman.
The bridge lighting design joins other projects worked on by the Leo A Daly Lighting Design Group, including the National Park Service Headquarters and “Fertile Ground” mural, both downtown, and the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters and Jones Bros. Cupcakes, both at midtown's Aksarben Village.
Bench said the $310,000 cost of the lighting redo was covered by a maintenance fund that draws from both Omaha and Council Bluffs. Since the fix, a glitch in a controller led to a temporary shutoff that lasted less than one night, but Bench described it as “nothing major” and said a part was replaced.
By summer, he said, downtown Omaha and the riverfront should sparkle even brighter. A face-lift of the Gene Leahy Mall and repair of the flood-damaged Heartland of America fountain are under way.
Meanwhile, a few weeks have passed since the color returned to the pylons of the Bob Kerrey bridge frequented by pedestrians and cyclists. City officials are becoming increasingly familiar with the system and planning creative light shows for special seasons and occasions including Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day.
“We're pretty excited to have them on,” Bench said.
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