Transportation Nation

VIDEO: Light Sculpture to Brighten the Bay Bridge

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

(Cy Musiker - San Francisco, KQED) The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge is having its moment.

The new eastern span opens in the fall. And on March 5, artist Leo Villareal will unveil the Bay Lights, a massive light sculpture he's designed for the suspension section connecting Treasure Island to San Francisco.

Working with CalTrans crews, Villareal has hung 25,000 LED lights on the cables on the north side of the bridge.

The project will cost about $8 million, all of it raised by private donations. And Villareal said it will pay off by attracting $97 million in economic activity to San Francisco.

"Really?" I asked. "People are going to fly here to see it?"

"Yes," he said. "Public art is a powerful magnet. Many people are drawn to this."

We were sitting on the Embarcadero, just north of the Bay Bridge. Bells were sounding behind us in the clock tower of the Ferry Building. But Villareal was focused on the sweeping view he had to the south, of the suspension span and the patterns forming in the lights he’s hung.

"For me its all about discovery," he said. "Figuring out what it can do. I don’t know in advance. There’s a lot of chance and randomness in my process, so I’m here to make discoveries."

In his lap Villareal held a remote desktop connected to a computer in the bridge's central anchorage, with which he was orchestrating the lights as he practiced for the show's opening night.

"This is a program that we wrote," he said. "It's called Particle Universe. And we can change their mass, the velocity, gravity. All these things we find in nature. As an artist, I use all these equations and rules as material, really just play with them. I'm just sitting here waiting for something exciting or compelling to happen. When it does I capture that moment, and that becomes part of the mix."

Artist Leo Villareal controls the Bay Lights with his laptop. (Cy Musiker/KQED)

Artist Leo Villareal controls the Bay Lights with his laptop. (Cy Musiker/KQED)

As Villareal spoke, he made the lights seem to fall from the tops of the cables to the bottom. Then a shadow moved across the lights from Treasure Island toward the city, and back again, and then the lights rippled, as though reflecting the waves on the bay below.

"You would think you wouldn't be able to improvise with software," said Villareal. "But I've found ways on involving chance and working intuitively with software. You can spend more time with this that a sign in Las Vegas or Time Square that does one thing for one minute and then repeats over and over again. The other thing that's important for viewers is that they don't feel anxiety that they missed something. At any point that you're ready to jump in, there it is."

I asked Villareal now that he’s spent so much time with the Bay Bridge, the commuter workhorse of the Bay Area, what he makes of its personality. It’s a question he struggled to answer.

"You don’t want to mess with it," he said. "You know I feel a lot of respect for it. I want to add something and augment what's here. These are the icons of the Bay Area, the bridges. I think there's also an honesty and integrity to the piece. That's very similar to what the bridge is like. I've done a couple of cable walks and gone to the top of the bridge and was amazed at how efficient it all is."

Villareal is a regular at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, and he says he wants people to gather on the Embarcadero to see the lights, the same way people gather around campfires out on the desert.

It seemed to be working that night as passersby gathered nearby, pointing up to the bridge.

"It looks kind of like some kind of star constellation to me," said Amy Gallie, one of the onlookers. "It becomes ethereal instead of something which is so prosaic that we're used to looking at."


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Transportation Nation

This Man Keeps Fond NYC Subway Memories Alive with Impressive Model Train Hobby

Monday, January 07, 2013

BMT line #7 "Green Hornet," 16 is the MS car, 1 is the D-motor. MT "D Motor" Triplex Car - courtesy Richard Dornhelm.

Millions of people in this country have hobbies. There’s stamp collecting, role playing games, beer making -- you name it, it’s out there.

And then there's my dad, Richard Dornhelm. He grew up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s and fell in love with the city's trains -- especially the ones running underground.

"I'm a civil engineer by training," he says now. "And I'm a Brooklyn boy by birth. We never had a car; we had a subway. We took the subway to my grandma’s house or we took the subway to museums. Took the subway to Coney Island. We took the subway pretty much everywhere we went."

When he was little, Dad and his brother Mark always stood at the front of the first car, where they’d stare out the huge front window as the trains barreled down the track.

[Listen to the audio version of this story at KQED]

"There wasn’t much to see in a tunnel," Dad says. "So it was really the anticipation that this train would take you somewhere and you’d come out of this hole in the ground and be in a very different place. A different world."

Dad grew up in Brooklyn -- near the Church Avenue station, on the F line -- and stayed there until he finished college. He eventually landed in California where he met my mom, who also grew up near the Church Avenue stop. When I was growing up, he only rode the subway when we went back East to visit family.

And then 15 years ago, he went to a railway museum in Rio Vista, a river town near Sacramento. And there he found some of the original 1880s steam-powered cars that once ran on Manhattan’s elevated tracks.

The two cars survived because they'd been sold for use in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond -- across the bay from San Francisco. After seeing them, my dad went home and started thinking about how to build replicas by hand, remembering subway modeling he’d done as a teen. And then the project just sort of took off.

One car led to another, and one subway line led to the next -- the old BMT, the Independent, and so on. You can see where this is going.

"I never intended to end up with 100 cars," Dad says.

But he did. And now my parents' living room in what is otherwise a simple 1970s tract home in Walnut Creek looks like a New York City rail yard. Dad's hand-crafted cars are about a foot long, of all colors, from all eras. They've won awards and run in holiday shows at Manhattan's Grand Central Station. There are antique-looking ones with paneled wooden sides and tiny bare lightbulbs. And there are shiny new stainless steel.

My dad allows that other people "don't look at subways the same way I do." Asked to explain, he adds: "I think they’re a marvel of ingenuity and even if they are a hole in the ground, it still has really produced enormous benefits for the people in the cities.”

My own kids have love for Dad's trains, too, driving them on a mock elevated track he's built. They can't really understand the hundreds of hours of work these incredibly detailed, built-from-scratch trains represent.

There are turquoise-and-white cars, replicas of cars built for a World's Fair. There's the 1930s “Green Hornet,” originally made of aluminum and shaped like a BART train, but scrapped because of World War II. And then there's the bright orange refrigerator car, something he remembers from the 1950s.

"The doors would open and people from the neighborhood would go up and buy crates of wine-making grapes," Dad remembers. "It was largely an Italian neighborhood. I remember I first heard about California because those orange refrigerator cars were from this place called California. Wonderful place I thought. Too bad the subway doesn’t go there."

Over the holidays, I watched my Dad sanding wood in his workshop, which used to be my room.  His father was a toolmaker and my Dad uses some of those tools as he works.

I’m struck by how much these models bring together: My dad and his father. Our families in California and Brooklyn. My dad’s childhood with his grandkids’. I can’t help but admire the cars' artistry as we look at them. He reminds me some of them will be mine someday.

“You don’t have to keep them all," he says. "You can just pick a few. And remember the subway… and remember me. What else can I say?"

To see more photos head over to KQED's The California Report where this article originally appeared. There's also a charming video of a model train pulling into a model El station and passengers "get on" the train with no seeming human hand at the puppet strings. Or go see the real things at the NY Transit Museum

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: See What 25,000 LED Lights on the Bay Bridge Will Look Like

Monday, December 10, 2012

(Cy Musiker -- San Francisco, KQED) It will be sparkly.  Lighting technicians and workers are closing a lane on San Francisco's iconic Bay Bridge each evening this week to install 25,000 LEDs on the cables on the north side of the bridge's suspension span.

The work is part of an art project to honor the bridge's 75th anniversary.

"What happens is crews go up in the middle of the night and hang down the side of the bridge and attach up to 500 LEDs each evening, per shift," says Ben Davis, chairman of Illuminate the Arts, the group that's installing the lights. According to the group's website, "the Bay Lights is the world’s largest light sculpture, 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high...[it will be] a monumental tour de force seven times the scale of the Eiffel Tower’s 100th Anniversary lighting."

"And the progress is just going great," says Davis. "We're over 10 percent complete, and we're completely on track for a grand lighting ceremony." That ceremony is scheduled for March 5, 2013.

Davis has raised $5.7 million dollars so far for the $8 million dollar project.

The lighting design is by light artist Leo Villareal, famous for his work at Burning Man and in museums around the world.  Davis says the project will bring attention to a bridge often overlooked for its more glamorous partner.

"I just about have an orgasm when I ride my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge." Davis said, "But I, like a lot of people here, have a really deeper love almost for the Bay Bridge, and its great to see this hard-working and really elegant bridge shine again in our consciousness."

The lighting project will be up for at least two years. It's not in time for this year's 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge. But it will be finished in time for next year's America's Cup, and the completion of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

Read more over at KQED.

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Transportation Nation

Calif. County Cancels Transportation Tax Recount

Thursday, December 06, 2012

BART train (photo by Keoki Seu via Flickr)

(Jon Brooks -- San Francisco, CA - KQED) The Alameda County Transportation Commission has called off the partial recount of votes on Measure B1, which lost in the squeakiest of squeakers this election. The measure, which needed a two-thirds majority, fell just 0.14 percent shy -- about 700 votes out of 350,000 cast.

B1 would have doubled the county's transportation sales tax to one cent in order to raise almost $8 billion for transportation projects over 30 years.

Arthur Dao, executive director of the ACTC, told us today that the partial recount focused on precincts that had shown both the highest level of support and also a high number of undervotes for B1, all in Berkeley. Yesterday's recount examined about 28,000 ballots, with just seven additional yes votes found, Dao said. "That's a very small number statistically to get us to the 750-800 yes ballot we'd need to get us to the two-thirds threshold."

Dao said the cost of the recount was under $8,000.

Plans are in the works for another measure, he said. "We will be regrouping, remobilizing, and rethinking with the objective of going back to the voters."

The county's current half-cent transportation sales tax expires in 2022. Last week, Dao cited inadequately paved streets, cuts in AC Transit bus service, and increased demand for transportation in the face of requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as pressing projects that need to be addressed by the county.

Read more over at KQED.

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