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Enhanced lighting plan considered for Niagara Falls

There have been efforts to light Niagara Falls since before electricity came to the city.

When the Prince of Wales visited in 1860, lights called Bengal lights, like those used to signal for help at sea, were placed along the banks above and below the American Falls and along the banks of the Canadian side of the gorge – along with spinning fireworks.

These days, the falls are lit up in an assortment of colors on either side of the border to celebrate holidays and to promote awareness of special causes.

But the current Xenon lighting, a type of halogen light, provides “inconsistent and low levels of light, according to modern standards,” according to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“That’s dated lighting,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said of the halogen bulbs.

But a plan by the binational Niagara Falls Illumination Board to upgrade the lighting using LED technology promises a brighter, more vibrant illumination – three times more powerful and with all the colors of the spectrum – while using half the power levels.

Dyster called the plan, which would cost $3.1 million ($4 million Canadian), “the first significant capital upgrade to the falls’ illumination in the past 20 years.”

He said the LED lighting would be more visually appealing and provide energy savings and more uniform lighting for photography.

The mayor said there already has been an example of the enhanced lighting during Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across the falls in 2012.

According to Niagara Parks history, the first illumination using electricity occurred in January 1879 during a visit by the Marquis of Lorne, governor general of Canada, and his wife, Princess Louise. The lights had an illumination of 32,000 candlepower, just a fraction of the intensity used today.

Most attempts after that were short-lived for special occasions such as the 1901 Pan-American Exposition or motivated by tourist operators such as the Maid of the Mist or the former Great Gorge Railroad, which used lights on the falls to attract people to their rides.

In 1925, the binational Niagara Falls Illumination Board was formed. The dues-paying partnership is made up of State Parks and the City of Niagara Falls in the United States and the Niagara Parks Commission, the City of Niagara Falls, Ont., and Ontario Hydro in Canada.

It installed 24 carbon search lights in 1925 and has kept the falls lit since that time.

By 1997 and 1998, new fixtures replaced the outdated lamps at the Illumination Tower and doubled the intensity of the lights on the falls without doubling the bill.

The current energy usage is about 126 kilowatts, which costs $33,000 a year to operate, Dyster said. The new system would use only 52 kilowatts, a 59 percent reduction in energy use.

The Niagara Illumination Board has been studying the upgrade for the past three years, and both countries have agreed to fund the project, providing $2 million each.

A total of $627,310 will be provided by State Parks, and a matching amount of external funding is being sought from the New York Power Authority. The Illumination Board also will provide capital reserve funds to both countries’ share.

Dyster said that due to funding from the state, the City of Niagara Falls will be asked to provide only $35,850, an amount that already has been approved by the City Council.

The lights would be installed on locations already in use on the Canadian side of the gorge that are owned by the Niagara Parks Commission.

The plan is to have the new lights unveiled during the winter holidays and ready for full operation in advance of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration on July 1, 2017, according to Dyster.

“There are some that say this would be more of a direct benefit to the Canadians because they front on the falls, but this is a benefit to us as a tourism destination to have a view of the falls at nighttime that goes along with the experience during the day,” Dyster recently told the City Council.

City Council Chairman Andrew Touma said this would help extend the park’s tourism season, even as the days get shorter.

“The falls is very beautiful when it is frozen and lit up at night, but we can do a lot better job,” Dyster said.