Joe Ponzio Keeps The Q Bridge Lit

Cara McDonough PhotoThe light show put on each evening on the Q Bridge is made possible by 548 LED fixtures, each with a 50,000-hour lifespan. It’s Joe Ponzio’s job to make sure they’re running right.

It’s difficult not to feel at least a little awestruck beholding the bridge — formally known as the New Haven Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge — spanning the Quinnipiac River below, its columns lit a vibrant red, white and blue, with two spotlights casting bright beams far into the dark sky above. Even when the lights are a uniform blue color, which they’ll remain all winter, they transform driving across the bridge at night into an aesthetic experience, a reward.

The Q Bridge lights were part of massive expansion and overhaul of the 0.8-mile bridge completed in 2015, turning the six-lane structure into a ten-lane “extradosed” bridge, with a $4.7 million price tag for the lights alone. It’s important to ensure each and every one of those bulbs is firing as planned every day of the year.

Ponzio, an electrician for Ducci Electrical Contractors, LLC, considers running the lights on the Q Bridge one of his most exciting jobs. His wife Karen (who writes about live music for the Independent) sometimes introduces him as “the man who lights up the bridge,” he said one recent evening while checking out the stellar view of the Pearl Harbor Day display from the intersection of Chapel and James Streets in Fair Haven.

Ponzio isn’t the long-winded type when talking about the lights. He exhibits a quiet, steadfast appreciation.

“I love it,” he said, gazing across the water. “It looks like someone took magic markers and painted the sky.”

Ponzio, 50, has been doing electrical work in the region since he graduated from Hamden’s Eli Whitney Technical High School in 1985. Working as a general contractor with Ducci, he keeps busy on a variety of jobs whenever the company wins a bid. He’s currently working on a hospital in Bridgeport, once worked on the Connecticut Financial Center — New Haven’s tallest building — and has done jobs all over Yale University, he said.

He’s been doing electrical work on the bridge “since it was coming out of the ground” when construction began in 2010, he said. Ducci is still finishing its contract at the bridge, so he’s there on and off, sometimes spending months-long periods working regularly at the site, other times taking breaks from that project.

When he is there, it’s often up close and personal. Ponzio and his co-workers know the parts of the structure invisible to the rest of us.

The bridge itself —  the part you drive over —  is hollow, Ponzio said, as are the tall towers, which have ladders all the way up, allowing access when electrical and other work is necessary. It’s tight in the towers, he said, but the bays under the main part of the bridge are incredibly spacious.

“I go all over,” he said. “You can hear cars driving over your head.”

Now that the lights are completed, they pretty much take care of themselves. But he still has to ensure everything is running smoothly.

The night before Pearl Harbor Day he staked out the scene from the warmth of his pickup truck below the bridge until around 1 a.m. The reason? Besides getting prime seating to the best light show in town, Ponzio had to make sure the lights changed color and stayed on as planned. He also had to remain on site in case there are any complaints from Tweed Airport about the “space cannons” — the white spotlights that shone straight up, approximately six miles into the sky, according to a fact sheet from the state Department of Transportation (DOT).

If there’s a potential plane problem he has to shut the cannons off, although, “it’s never happened,” he said, not even once.

Miguel Alonso PhotoThe colors change on several important dates a year, most recently for the bridge’s namesake day, when they decorate the New Haven skyline from the evening of Dec. 6 through the night of Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day. That’s one of five times a year that the Q changes colors to mark a notable day or holiday. The lights also change on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Sept. 11, and Veterans Day, as dictated by the DOT. The bulbs are actually only three colors — either red, green, or blue — but those colors can be combined to create a wide variety of hues.

The only color change currently approved, however, is to the designated red, white and blue; although it seems like a fun idea, they won’t go bright green for St. Patrick’s Day, for instance.

Some might remember the lights glowing a variety of colors for a few weeks in 2016, including a rainbow display that many thought was in honor of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, said Ponzio. But that was just a testing period to ensure the lights were working correctly.

The LED lights are pre-programmed on a panel that Ducci Electrical controls and remain their current shade of blue throughout the winter, changing to light green in the spring and summer. They come to life daily a half-hour before sunset and shutting off a half-hour before sunrise.

The DOT very specifically chose the blue and green Kelvin-scale hues for reasons beyond their aesthetic appeal, Ponzio explained: “It’s for the birds.” Those two shades are the least distracting to birds flying by the bright structure, ensuring they don’t become attracted to the bridge and fly too close, or disoriented by the display.

Humans, however, tend to respond well no matter what. Ponzio has watched happily as cars stop below the bridge, drivers exiting to snap a picture on the designated red, white and blue display days.

When asked about the bridge, many Morris Cove residents, who travel it frequently as it connects downtown New Haven with their neighborhood on the other side, said they see the lights as a cheerful beacon, and a sign that they are almost home.

“I return home over the Q Bridge every evening, and sigh in relief that my long trip is almost over when I see soothing, warm blue welcome lights,” said neighbor Renate Blau.

Stephanie Consiglio said that she tends to be an anxious driver. “I’m sure on that particular part of the highway, many people are,” she added. “However, when I approach and see the beautiful color lighting up the bridge, it has a calming effect on me. I don’t know why, but it does.”

Another Cove resident, Robert Jordan, said he notices a certain phenomenon that occurs when looking out from Forbes Avenue as he approaches the bridge in the evening, replicating the color change that occurs on patriotic holidays. The cars heading towards you have their white headlights on, he said, while red brake lights glow on cars headed away. The result, with the bridge’s blue lights, is an incidental red, white and blue tapestry.

Jordan is struck by it every time. He said it makes him think about the country, the world, and people coming and going. “I think it’s lovely,” he said.

Claudia Bosch has observed the very same thing on nighttime crossings. “The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge is a sea of red, white and blue,” she said. “How fitting.”

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posted by: CT DRV on January 11, 2018  1:48pm

Wouldn’t mind seeing a sister story about the lights on top of the Union at Church and Elm. It’s a pumpkin one month, a Christmas Tree the next, etc.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on January 11, 2018  8:47pm

The lights are cute but we missed a huge opportunity by not providing a pedestrian bridge in the Q construction. The walkway on the Golden Gate is one of the best tourist attractions in SF.

posted by: fastdriver on January 11, 2018  8:55pm

I’m still a little confused. WHY does the DOT only allow certain colors when the LED lights have the capability of a multitude of colors? The birds? I think a different color every week or every month would look really nice.

posted by: JCFremont on January 12, 2018  10:17am

I notice that there are four steel rods at the top of the entrance bases on the four corners of the bridge. Are those capable of holding some sort of art sculpture? Any plans for something like that?

posted by: flash_demo on January 12, 2018  4:00pm

I love this beautiful bridge. I voted for it nearly every day and was thrilled when it won the America’s Transportation Award. It is something we can all be proud of.

posted by: 1644 on January 14, 2018  9:41pm

Ben:  The guy on the top reminded me of the viewing platforms on the top of the Sydney bridge.  It would be cool if these towers were open to the public like Sydney’s, but I doubt we have the population density to support it.  Sydney’s tower platforms are a good alternative for those too squeamish to walk the arch.  In the final analysis, as nice as this bridge is, it’s just not as close to as iconic and significant as the Golden Gate or Sydney Harbour.