The Brooklyn Bridge has been through a lot in its 127 years, and now the New York icon needs a facelift.

The famous 1.1-mile suspension bridge is getting a $500 million makeover, a project that includes a complete repainting and the repair of elements that were part of its original construction.

Vice President Joe Biden joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday to mark the beginning of the rehab, which is set to be completed in four years.

The federal economic recovery act provided $30 million for the effort; the rest of the funding comes from the city and other federal sources.

Standing in front of an access ramp where huge swaths of peeling paint exposed patches of rusted steel, Biden said the makeover was a "badly needed" upgrade for the beloved bridge.

"This bridge is an emblem of what this great country represents," he said.

The bridge, with its two neo-Gothic towers and elegant steel cables, is one of New York City's most revered pieces of architecture. Designed by engineer John Augustus Roebling, it opened May 24, 1883, after 13 years of building at a cost of $15 million.

The East River span - the subject of several books, a Ken Burns documentary and countless songs - helped spur the growth of the city's outer boroughs. It also has played an important role in major events throughout city history, including on Sept. 11, 2001, when a flood of people fled lower Manhattan by walking across the bridge.

The structure has been spruced up many times over the years, but not recently.

"It is the first major work on the bridge in 10 years," Bloomberg said.

The landmark, traversed by 120,000 cars and thousands of pedestrians and cyclists each day, was last painted in 1991. The repainting is expected to take the entire four years.

The existing coat must first be blasted off. To minimize air quality issues, the blasting and repainting will be done in enclosed units that travel along the structure, above traffic, and equipment placed on barges anchored to the bridge above.

The new coat will be in the same sandy-colored hue seen on the bridge now, a shade approved by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and called "Brooklyn Bridge tan."

The other major update will be to the roadways that approach the bridge in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Ramps will be expanded from one to two lanes.

The city said slabs of pavement will be installed in segments, and the steel decks on the approach ramps will also be removed in sections and replaced panel by panel with precast concrete-filled steel, to reduce noise from drilling and jackhammers.

Rusted railings in some areas of the approach ramps - some that were part of the original bridge construction - will be refurbished and reinstalled.

The bridge facelift is one of six infrastructure projects in New York City that received stimulus funding.

According to the mayor's office, most of the Brooklyn Bridge work will be done at night, requiring some lane closures of the bridge's Manhattan-bound lanes. On some weekends, all lanes to Manhattan will be closed. Brooklyn-bound lanes will remain open during night work and on weekends. Motorists heading to Manhattan can use alternate routes. The walkway for pedestrians and bicycles will remain open during the project.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)