Acosta Bridge’s rainbow lights return; I-TEAM uncovers why they were shut off

JTA can resume rainbow lights all week to recognize Pride Month, state says

VIDEO: The rainbow lights across the Acosta Bridge celebrating pride month in Jacksonville will be turned back on.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Transportation Authority again lit the Acosta Bridge in rainbow colors Wednesday night after being told Tuesday by the Florida Department of Transportation that its color scheme was “out of compliance” with its existing permit.

Emails obtained by the I-TEAM from FDOT officials show that within 12 hours of Jacksonville’s Acosta Bridge being lit up to celebrate Pride Month, state officials were calling for the rainbow colors to be turned off after complaints.

Public records show an FDOT official in the agency’s Jacksonville Urban Office called and emailed JTA officials saying they’d received “several complaints regarding the color scheme on the Acosta Bridge.”

According to FDOT, the complaints were phone calls, and there are no records of who made those calls.

The official told JTA to “adhere to the permitted color scheme.” JTA said it would comply and returned the Acosta Bridge to its usual blue color Tuesday night.

READ: JTA decorative lighting permit

A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis told News4Jax the rainbow lights would return Wednesday night and remain for the rest of the week as JTA originally planned. The lights are scheduled to come on at 6:30 p.m. each night and did return as planned Wednesday evening.

The spokesperson told News4Jax on Tuesday that the governor’s office had nothing to do with the decision to cancel the rainbow light display in the first place.

According to a statement from FDOT spokesperson Beth Frady, the specific permit issued to JTA for the Acosta Bridge includes “very specific information related to the approved lighting schematics.” Frady said the rainbow color scheme was not previously submitted and approved “in accordance with bridge lighting policy,” but noted that FDOT “has since authorized” JTA to resume the rainbow lights “as it is obviously a matter of broad community interest.”

A letter from FDOT to JTA officials thanked JTA “for acknowledging that the JTA violated the terms of their permit with FDOT regarding aesthetic lighting on the Acosta Bridge, to which you are the permittee.”

READ: Letter from FDOT to JTA

The letter gave JTA permission to continue the lighting scheme for the week and said FDOT “will evaluate additional lighting patterns suggested by JTA in accordance with the Bridge Lighting Policy.”

The Pride colors are shining once again on the Acosta Bridge. After the Jacksonville Transportation Authority was told to change the colors back to normal on Tuesday, the controversy had the Governor's office weighing in.

Other color changes

The Acosta Bridge is often lit up in different colors throughout the year. On the Fourth of July, and most recently on Memorial Day weekend, the bridge was lit in red, white and blue.

When it was announced that Trevor Lawrence was coming to the Jaguars on April 29, the bridge was lit orange and purple -- the colors for Clemson University, where Lawrence played as quarterback in college.

Also in April, the JTA highlighted Autism Acceptance Month, lighting the bridge in these colors:

Notably, the patriotic scheme is listed as approved but neither the Trevor Lawrence Clemson color scheme nor the Autism Acceptance Month color scheme was listed in the approved schematics in JTA’s permit.

The permit allows nine color schemes. In addition to the patriotic scheme, approved color schemes listed in the permit are for the Jaguars (teal), Breast Cancer Awareness (pink), New Year’s (amber), St. Patrick’s Day (green), Christmas (red and green), Halloween/Thanksgiving (orange and black), Valentine’s Day (red and pink) and Easter (purple, yellow, green and pink).

FDOT told the I-TEAM that it “has not received requests regarding variances to the lighting colors or sequences on the Acosta Bridge,” meaning it didn’t get any special requests for the previous color schemes that didn’t fit the nine pre-approved color schemes.

Despite previously straying from the permit, the Pride Month color scheme is the first time the JTA was told it was out of compliance.

News4Jax tried to speak with JTA Executive Director Nat Ford on Wednesday to ask why the agency didn’t debate FDOT on the seemingly selective demand to switch off the rainbow color scheme and whether any future plans will be affected, but so far he has not agreed to speak on camera.

JTA can resume rainbow lights all week to recognize Pride Month, state says.

A story written by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune states that FDOT rejected a request from Sarasota to light the Ringling Causeway Bridge with rainbow lights. It’s a request that the state has approved for other lighting displays.

Advocates, politicians weigh in

Karrissa Wade, a board member of River City Pride, said many in the LGBTQ+ community and its allies were disheartened to see JTA’s week-long schedule honoring Pride Month interrupted Tuesday night, particularly after DeSantis signed a bill banning transgender female athletes from competing on high-school girls’ and college women’s sports teams and also cut $900,000 in funding for LGBTQ programs in Central Florida to help survivors of the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

Cindy Watson, CEO of JASMYN, a local organization that supports LGBTQ young people, said no matter the intent behind the decision to cancel the color scheme, what matters is the impact.

“Regardless of the intention, the impact is serious and it’s harmful to young people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies,” Watson said. “I do think Pride is being targeted, in our state, in our community in particular.”

Michael Womack with Equality Florida agreed. Womack said the interruption in the rainbow lighting is the latest instance of the state targeting the LGBTQ community.

“The governor has declared war on Florida’s LGBT community,” Womack said. “And it’s not just related to lights. It’s related to him signing the first anti-LGBT bill in 24 years in this state. It’s about him vetoing money for Pulse survivors on the five-year remembrance of the event itself. And you know, we’re not standing for it.”

VIDEO: Karrissa Wade, a board member of River City Pride, said she and many in the LGBTQ community and its allies were disheartened to see JTA’s week-long schedule honoring Pride Month interrupted.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson also believes the real culprit is the governor’s office.

“Somebody said something. It didn’t just happen by chance, particularly when we had the bridge lighting when they got the new football player. We have bridge lighting for Black History Month, breast cancer awareness -- all of those things have not gone through a permitting process, so why Pride Month,” Gibson said.

Again, the governor’s office has denied any involvement with the decision to stop the Pride Month lights, saying “the governor was most definitely not involved in that decision and it’s absurd to think otherwise.”

Gibson said she was on the phone early Wednesday morning with Kevin Thibault, the head of FDOT, about why they ordered the rainbow lights shut off. Thibault told her that it technically needs to go to a resolution process to show city interest.

“I said, ‘So is that just this time? Because it looks like selective enforcement.’ (Thibault said) ‘No, it’s all the time,’” Gibson said.

News4Jax asked for comment from Mayor Lenny Curry’s office on the issue, but his staff said this issue involves the state and JTA.

What’s next

Each month, JTA compiles a schedule to recognize different holidays, monthly awareness campaigns, special events, college and professional football games and other observances.

Here is the schedule:

  • June 7-13: Pride Month -- Rainbow
  • June 18: Sickle Cell Awareness -- Red
  • June 19: Juneteenth -- Red, Black and Green
  • June 20-24: PTSD Awareness Month -- Teal
  • June 25-27: 100th Anniversary of the Acosta Bridge opening -- Yellow and Acosta Blue
  • July 1-4: Independence Day Holiday Week -- Red, White and Blue

A protest is still planned for 10 a.m. Saturday. Protesters plan to bring Pride flags and either walk across the bridge’s sidewalk or drive across the bridge.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.