(Evan Richman/Globe Staff/file 2002)
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
One of Boston’s most iconic symbols, the Zakim Bridge, went dark indefinitely tonight as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority begins its most audacious effort yet to save money and stave off insolvency.
The Turnpike Authority may also turn off every fourth light in the Tip O’Neil Tunnel.
Since it opened in 2002, the electric blue lights on the towering bridge have been nearly as identifiable with Boston as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, appearing on television backdrops and even gracing the Turnpike Authority’s own homepage.
Bruce Springsteen played "Thunder Road" at the dedication of the bridge as 2,000 people marveled at the melding of modern engineering and aesthetics.
But the $15 billion Big Dig project, which created the 1,432-foot span, has left the Turnpike Authority billions of dollars in debt. Alan LeBovidge, the Turnpike Authority’s executive director, said he decided earlier this week to shut off the decorative lights at night to save about $5,000 per month.
Safety-related lighting, including lights to keep airplanes from crashing into the bridge, will remain on.
“Anything’s symbolic if you want, but I think it's money,” LeBovidge said. “If it didn’t save me money, I wouldn’t do it.”
LeBovidge said he did not know how long the bridge would stay dark. It will depend, he said, on whether the authority can plug its deficit. LeBovidge said he is looking at a number of similar cost-saving measures, including turning off every fourth light in the Tip O’Neil Tunnel.
The turnpike board voted last month to delay a toll hike while it awaits action from the Legislature on Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to raise the gas tax by 19 cents per gallon to help fix the state's transportation system.
Some of that money would be used to bail out the Turnpike Authority.
“I’ve got to make it through [paying the authority’s bills] here, and it’s like crawling over broken glass,” LeBovidge said.
Meanwhile, the House voted this week to eliminate the Turnpike Authority, following a similar vote by the Senate. If Patrick signs a final version of the bill, the bridge will become somebody else's problem.