Maryland may have trouble finding money to build roads these days, but it sure knows how to dress up a bridge.
State officials will flip the switch tomorrow night on $656,700 worth of decorative lights illuminating the steel superstructure of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Interstate 695.
The 1.5-mile bridge over the Patapsco River will be the first Maryland bridge boasting lights designed solely for aesthetics, transportation officials said.
Several years ago, when Maryland's economy was robust, officials decided to "do some type of decorative lighting such as [found on] other major bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco," said Thomas Freburger, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The authority oversees the state's toll facilities -- four bridges, the two Baltimore Harbor tunnels and Interstate 95 north of the Baltimore Beltway.
Freburger said toll money, not tax dollars, paid for the Key Bridge project, which included an additional $312,700 worth of improvements to bridge roadway lights.
Although faced with flat toll revenues, the Transportation Authority has not faced the same financial crunch that has addled its cousin, the Maryland Department of Transportation, which oversees non-toll highways and bridges.
With a $113 million budget, the Transportation Authority is run by its own board, appointed by the governor and chaired by Maryland's secretary of transportation.
The Department of Transportation, which depends mainly on gasoline taxes and titling fees, ran out of money for new road and bridge projects late last year, when it put scores of projects on hold.
The General Assembly came to its rescue last week when it voted to increase about 60 fees charged by the Motor Vehicle Administration. The higher fees are expected to bring in enough money so that the Department of Transportation can resume work on 120 highway, airport and bridge projects.
Although in better shape, the Transportation Authority is not ignoring the recession, Freburger said.
The lights will be left on for only four to six hours a night, depending on the season, to keep operating costs down to $10,000 a year, he said. Costs could double if the lights were left on all night, he said.
The authority picked a lighting system that is less expensive to maintain and operate than others available, Freburger said.
The sodium vapor floodlights, similar to lamps in modern street lights, shine upward into the steel structure above the roadway, creating a particularly attractive sight for boaters entering Baltimore Harbor, Freburger said.
Workers finished the lighting project last fall, but officials did not want to turn the lights on during the Persian Gulf war, Freburger said. The Fourth of July week festivities offered an opportunity to pay tribute to freedom, democracy and the Marylanders who served in Operation Desert Storm, he said.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer is scheduled to attend the ceremony at 8:30 p.m. at Fort Armistead Park, which sits under the bridge near the Baltimore City-Anne Arundel County border.