Houston City Council members passed an item Sept. 20 approving a collaboration between the city and Houston First Corporation on the repair and upkeep of the decorative lights on bridges over the Southwest Freeway in the Downtown corridor.

The current situation

The decorative lights over the freeway, which were installed in 2017 ahead of Super Bowl LI, have been defunct for months. The collaboration serves to not only repair the lights, but to maintain them for the next decade.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said at the meeting Houston First's process ahead of this agenda item has been thorough; the group reached out to 20 contractors and narrowed it down to five to get a competitive price.

The details

According to city of Houston officials, the project is estimated to cost $4 million over the next 10 years, and the city will pay two-thirds of the cost, or $2.66 million, in fiscal year 2023-24. Houston First will pay one-third and will cover any overruns in installation and maintenance for the next decade. The installation will include new technology, Turner said.

At-large Council Member Mike Knox said the lights were originally installed and maintained by the Montrose Management District, which has since dissolved. He said the city should be more careful with regard to what it allows management districts to do in the future.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin inquired into how much funding the Montrose Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone has and why it isn't a part of the collaboration. District C Council Member Abbie Kamin said TIRZs cannot take on maintenance obligations, although management districts can.

Quotes of note

"I think we're all familiar with the decorative lights across [Hwy.] 59," Turner said to the council members. "You talk about adding to the beautification of the city and that whole area. I know in just driving through, over the years, I've heard from so many people how attractive the city looked with those lights changing colors."

"I want to make sure my colleagues around the horseshoe understand how much this means to Neartown, Montrose and University Place," Kamin said. "These bridges literally unite the neighborhoods."

Kamin went on to thank the Texas Department of Transportation, noting, in addition to the aesthetic changes coming to these bridges, structural concerns will also be addressed so residents can feel safe walking along them. She also said it would have been a "hefty cost" just to take down the lights.

Also on the agenda

The $2.6 million for these decorative lights will come from the city's general fund, Council Member Mary Nan Huffman said. She drew a comparison to another agenda item, tagged by At-large Council Member Letitia Plummer, that would have addressed the voluntary relocation efforts of residents living in the Fifth Ward cancer cluster at the cost of $5 million, also from the general fund.

"It just seems like lights are a luxury," Huffman said. "I know that it will make Houston beautiful. ... They may not feel safe walking, but these people [in the Fifth Ward] don't feel safe living."

Turner said the surplus of the city's fund balance—which is projected to be around $400 million by the end of fiscal year 2023-24—allows it to fund the cost of the lights, but Huffman voted against the item.