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Why is Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway bridge only half lit up?

Recently, commuters and fisherman noticed lights on the Pinellas side had gone dark. Who pulled the plug?
A portion of the Sunshine Skyway bridge multi-million dollar LED light system is off due to a damaged transformer and is pictured on October 30 in St. Petersburg.
A portion of the Sunshine Skyway bridge multi-million dollar LED light system is off due to a damaged transformer and is pictured on October 30 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 2, 2020

Last year, state transportation officials figuratively hit the switch to light up what already was Tampa Bay’s most iconic bridge.

With that, the landmark Sunshine Skyway — 4.1 miles connecting Pinellas and Manatee counties with yellow cables stretching like sails into the sky — was transformed at night. The $15 million project added 1,800 colored LED lights to 1.7 miles of the bridge and made for a striking sight you could see for miles.

The Skyway glowed red for International Firefighter’s Day, pink, green and teal for breast cancer awareness. When national media came to town, it was a good bet the Skyway at night would catch the camera’s eye.

But this fall, commuters, boaters and residents with a view noticed something not quite right.

Like a brightly glowing Christmas tree with a crucial strand of twinklers burned out, the bridge’s festive lights on the Pinellas County side to the north had gone dark. Emails started coming to state officials inquiring about the big bridge’s lopsided lighting.

Who pulled the plug?

Kris Carson, Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said the lights went down in late September after one of the transformers that powers them was damaged. Officials haven’t determined how that happened, but it likely wasn’t a direct hit from Florida’s infamous lightning, because the transformer in question is inside the bridge.

“Unfortunately, this has resulted in only part of the bridge lighting working,” Carson said Thursday. “It will take about a month to get the new transformer in and installed.”

Until then, only the Manatee half of the bridge will be colorfully resplendent at dusk.

Overall, the new lights have been a hit.

After they made their debut last year, the state received “overwhelming calls and emails,” Carson said, with requests to light the bridge to commemorate causes, boost awareness and cheer on sports teams.

And that’s not all. One expectant father, apparently a go-big-or-go-home type, called to ask if he could use the bridge for a gender reveal and light the Sunshine Skyway blue for a boy, pink for a girl. Answer: No.

The Skyway lights up in eight state-designated themes: Sunset, Waves, Purple Majestic, Elegant, Patriotic, Gateway, Verdant Green and New Year’s. The bridge also can sport state and federal holiday themes and commemorate matters of “broad community interest.”

“We are using red, white and blue right now," Carson said, “to honor all first responders during the state of emergency.”