The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority turned off the lights on the Zakim Bridge to save $5,000 a month. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff)

When the cash-strapped Massachusetts Turnpike Authority doused the lights on the Zakim Bridge last week, it crushed a lot of spirits, not least those of Miguel Rosales.

The architect, who designed the bridge with a skirt of regal blue lights to evoke the shimmering Charles River, drove Sunday night along Interstate 93 and gazed mournfully at his creation, darkened for the first time since it opened to great fanfare in 2002. Rather than wallow in sadness, he took action. Yesterday, Rosales mailed a check for $15,000 to the authority – enough to light the bridge for three months – and urged the agency to, please, let the lights shine again, for the sake of the city.

“It just brings to life the whole structure at night,” Rosales said yesterday, adding that while he sympathized with the Turnpike Authority’s financial plight, “Turning the lights off, I don’t think it really gives the right message. I think it makes it an even more depressing situation.”

Turnpike officials, who darkened the bridge to save $5,000 a month, were surprised by Rosales’s donation, a decidedly rare gesture of charity toward an agency that has been criticized as bloated and wasteful. But, they said, it probably won’t be enough to get the lights back on.

“My initial reaction is, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Alan LeBovidge, the executive director of the authority. “And assuming he’s an upstanding guy, and assuming there’s no legal impediment not to take it, I’d say we need $45,000 more. I don’t want to turn them on, and turn them off, and turn them on, and turn them off. If we’re going to do something like that, I’d like to have a sustainable solution.”

In a recession that has seen cuts in the city schools, police department, and social services, as well as calls for higher tolls and taxes, cutting the Zakim lights was seen as a needling blow to the city’s psyche. One of Boston’s most recognizable landmarks, the bridge at night has been heralded by drivers and broadcast internationally as a backdrop for television and film.

“To me, it’s a source of inspiration, and I always felt like it gave me so much satisfaction,” said Rosales, a 48-year-old Beacon Hill resident who passes the bridge on his runs along the Esplanade.

On Wednesday, Rosales was in Portland, Ore., working on his latest project, a bridge over the Willamette River, when he learned, in an e-mail from a friend, that the Turnpike Authority, facing insolvency, was cutting the Zakim lights. “I was very sad,” Rosales said. “It was very disappointing.”

Back in Boston, Rosales drove on Interstate 93 Sunday night to look at the bridge, illuminated only by its required aircraft warning lights. The bridge, he said, “had lost its appeal.”

“This was the first cable-stay in New England,” Rosales said. “No one had a bridge like this. And it was supposed to be an icon for the city.”

Rosales called the lighting “an integral part of the design” that was “carefully planned to highlight the bridge as an important gateway to the city of Boston.” And he said he hoped his donation would inspire more donations.

Plenty of others welcomed the idea. “It’s incredibly generous of him,” said Frederick P. Salvucci, the former state transportation secretary who was instrumental in overseeing the Big Dig. He called Rosales’s donation “really uplifting.”

“What’s the saying? Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle?” Salvucci said. “Maybe this is the candle we need. I was really moved to see it.”

LeBovidge, however, was not. With the turnpike buried under $2.2 billion in long-term debt, he said, the authority cannot afford to pay for decorative lights.

“It’s all about money,” LeBovidge said. “I’ve gotten calls from people saying, ‘Are you doing this to bamboozle us?’ But this is not a coordinated, Machiavellian anything. Maybe people have missed it: The Turnpike is having financial problems and revenues are down.”

Michael Levenson
<a href=”http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/04/14/its_all_about_money/”>Boston Globe