Anthony Biancosino doesn’t take the South Street Bridge every day, but for him, it’s a nice symbol of home.

The Southwest Center City resident encounters the bridge when returning to Philly from the airport, and his travels often happen at night. But for the last few months, something has been off. The four tower lights that make the bridge glow have been dark since late summer.

“It’s just like a welcoming into the city, and then you see the bridge and then those lights are not working,” said Biancosino, 73. "It’s kind of like a blah introduction.”

Biancosino took to Curious Philly, the Inquirer’s question-and-response forum, in which readers submit questions about their communities and our journalists report out the answers, to find out why.

That “blah introduction” will continue for a bit longer. The 50-foot-tall tower lights, meant to operate from dusk till dawn since they were turned on in 2012, haven’t been on since about late August. The city hopes to turn the lights back on in late spring, said Darin Gatti, chief engineer and surveyor at the Philadelphia Streets Department.

The South Street Bridge is pictured across the Schuylkill last month. The bridge's four LED light towers are not currently illuminated.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
The South Street Bridge is pictured across the Schuylkill last month. The bridge's four LED light towers are not currently illuminated.

Technical issues

Gatti said the programmable LED lights are normally turned off during extreme heat or cold to lengthen their lifespan. Hot weather forced a late-summer shutdown, and when the lights were turned back on, crews noticed some blank spots. The department decided to shut off the towers completely while it sought someone to do diagnostic, replacement, and upgrade work.

The expected lifespan of the lights is seven to 10 years, Gatti said. The bridge, which cost $67.4 million, opened in 2010.

“You know, televisions, computers, and stuff, they’re outdated in a matter of months and here we have something that’s seven years old now,” he said.

Gatti said that the department is finalizing a contract to get the work done.

The South Street Bridge towers, shown here when working in 2017, use LED lights.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The South Street Bridge towers, shown here when working in 2017, use LED lights.

Before they were turned off, the lights were programmed to display images such as the American flag, but Gatti hopes to get some “new programs” on the towers in the future, too.

The cost to get the lights back up and running should be $15,000 to $20,000, Gatti said.

“Although it’s not really a gateway, you coming into the city from the south on the Schuylkill Expressway there, you see it. You know, OK, here’s Philadelphia — you’re here," he said. "So, it is a nice addition to the skyline at night.”

Down below

If your early-morning run or bike ride down to Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk is in the dark during long winter days, blame nature.

The lights along the boardwalk are solar-powered. So it’s possible that a series of already-short, overcast days could prevent the battery packs from getting a full charge, leading them to potentially dim before sunrise, said Joseph Syrnick, president and CEO of the Schuylkill River Development Corp.

“In the perfect world, they would stay on all night, and a perfect world would be a bright, sunny day,” Syrnick said.

Solar-powered lights line the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Solar-powered lights line the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

Anyone on the boardwalk who believes a light is out for reasons other than a series of cloudy days can reach out to the SRDC or the Parks and Recreation Department, which is responsible for the lights’ maintenance.

The decision to install solar-powered lights came largely from a disaster-response standpoint. If the boardwalk ever saw extreme flooding — as it did in 2014 while it was under construction — it would be easier to get to a battery pack at the top of the pole rather than navigate a boat or barge to get to hard-wired lighting, Syrnick said.

The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk underwater following a 2014 storm.
SRDC / Courtesy
The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk underwater following a 2014 storm.

“Those batteries would never be underwater,” he said. “Water ever gets that high, we got a lot bigger problems.”