Who gets to decide the color of the lights on Portland’s Morrison Bridge?

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
March 7, 2022 1 p.m.

Turns out anyone can pay to have the lights switched. Even University of Washington fans.

The blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag appeared on Portland’s Morrison Bridge last week, a sign of support for Ukraine and opposition to the Russian invasion.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury asked for the lights after receiving numerous requests.

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But even though Kafoury oversees the county, and the county oversees the bridge, picking which lights shine on the side of the span is actually the job of a small nonprofit, the Willamette Light Brigade. It pays for the lights and power — because strictly speaking, the lights aren’t a transportation expense.

The Morrison Bridge in Portland was lit purple in honor of Prince. The pop icon died Thursday, April 21, 2016.

FILE: The Morrison Bridge in Portland was lit purple in honor of Prince when the pop icon died in April 2016. The bridge has also been cast in purple when the University of Washington paid for the color on the day of a big game with the University of Oregon, ruffling the Duck fans' feathers.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

To pay for the lights, the nonprofit has a website at which anyone can pay to shine whatever color they want for a fee. It’s about $100 for one night, and the price drops the more nights are booked. There’s also an extra charge if you want the lights to flash or change color.

For decades, Portland’s bridges tended to be stately edifices. But in 1987, a couple of electrical unions decided it might look nice to illuminate the Morrison Bridge for Christmas. Carols were sung, and flood lights with color filters were switched on.

Multnomah County spokesman Mike Pullen said that got people thinking: “Why is it that our amazing collection of bridges in the central city sort of disappear at night when they could be landmarks at night, as well as during the day?”

The lights became permanent. But they weren’t easy to change. Originally, they were theatrical lights with color gel filters.

“Somebody would have to go down a ladder or use a winch to physically change the gel to make it a different color,” Pullen said.

Later, LED lights were installed, and they can now simply be programmed to change color. And people have changed the color for all kinds of reasons. On March 10, for example, the bridge will be blue to honor people who died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The colors have been changed to mark cancer awareness month, Prince’s birthday, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. Pullen won a charity auction and changed the color to red, gold and green to mark Bob Marley’s birthday.

Portland's Morrison Bridge was lit in rainbow colors Monday, June 13, 2016, in support of the LGBTQ community following the tragic events in Orlando on Sunday. Monday also marked the first day of Portland's annual Pride Week.

FILE: Portland's Morrison Bridge was lit in rainbow colors on June 13, 2016, in support of the LGBTQ community following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. That date also marked the first day of Portland's annual Pride Week.

Laurie Isola / OPB

This being a boisterous sea of democracy, there have been complaints. Usually, it’s when sports are involved.

Pullen said it’s not uncommon for a University of Washington fan to bathe the bridge in purple when the Huskies play the University of Oregon.

“There’s nothing we can do to stop that,” he said. “It’s first come, first serve, no matter where you live. "

He said county leaders have even checked with their attorney.

“He said if it was words that were going to be shining on the piers of the Morrison Bridge, we might have to deal with a freedom of expression issue,” Pullen said. “But lights, he thought, were more nebulous.”

For those worried about light pollution, the bridge conforms with dark skies policies. The lights shine directly on the bridge, not into the sky or down into the water, where they might disturb endangered salmon.

Other Portland bridges, like the Hawthorne, have been illuminated for events in the past. An artist installed a system on the Tilikum Crossing that changes the colors based on factors such as the river’s temperature and level. The arches of the Sellwood Bridge are also illuminated.

So has anyone ‘s request to illuminate the Morrison Bridge ever been rejected?

“People are only turned down because somebody else has paid for that day,” Pullen said.

The bridge carried the colors of Ukraine through Sunday. After that, they’ll shift to honor Kidney Cancer Awareness month.

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