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Santa Fe streets going dark, bulb by bulb

January 27, 2019

As Fred King sees it, Santa Fe is slipping into darkness, one burned-out streetlight at a time.

“There are so many lights that are burned out, it’s mind-boggling,” said King, who has taken his concerns all the way to the Mayor’s Office.

“Right by the Capitol, between Cerrillos [Road] and Don Gaspar [Avenue], there’s about four or five lights out,” he said. “Right by the Capitol.

“Here’s the city of Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico,” King added, “and they can’t get the lightbulbs in place? To me, that’s an easy fix.”

But fixing a streetlight in Santa Fe isn’t as easy as changing a lightbulb at home.

With 4,815 streetlights throughout the city, some are bound to go out periodically.

Public Service Company of New Mexico, the electric utility that maintains Santa Fe’s streetlights, anticipates a small percentage of inoperable lights at any given time. PNM’s goal is to have more than 99 percent of the city’s streetlights in working order.

It’s a lofty goal and it’s difficult to determine how close — or how far — PNM is from meeting it.

Neither the city, which owns nearly 60 percent of the streetlights in Santa Fe, nor PNM, which owns the rest, takes a proactive approach to fixing them when they go dark. The responsibility for helping to get a darkened streetlight repaired falls largely on residents, who are expected to report outages.

“The city does not as a matter of manpower have people driving around checking to see if streetlights are working at any given time,” city spokesman Matt Ross said. “But we do try to respond as quickly as we can when someone reports a broken streetlight.”

Ray Sandoval, a PNM spokesman, offered a similar explanation.

“We’re a regulated company, and that means that we can’t afford to go and send crews out to patrol streetlights,” he said. “If we were to have patrols out there, you would see that increase in customer bills because you have to pay for those folks to go out there and look for those streetlights.”

Albuquerque, which has close to 20,000 streetlights, nearly all of which have been converted to more energy-efficient and longer-lasting LED bulbs, is more diligent than Santa Fe.

“If I was driving around at night and I saw a streetlight that was out, I would absolutely report it,” said Johnny Chandler, a spokesman for Albuquerque’s Department of Municipal Development. “We encourage any city employee to do that.”

But Chandler said the city can’t do it alone. Albuquerque, which has a detailed online map showing the location of every streetlight and whether the city or PNM is responsible for fixing it, also urges residents to be on the lookout.

“We obviously encourage residents and want them to reach out to us and help us because we have over 4,600 miles of roadway in the city of Albuquerque with a very, very large percentage of them that do have streetlights,” he said. “It’s got to be a team effort. There’s just too many streetlights and too much roadway in the city for [government crews] to hit it all.”

In Santa Fe, the city and PNM are rolling out a new strategy to make the reporting — and repair — of darkened streetlights more efficient. PNM is now asking residents to report outages directly to the utility, leaving the city out of the process.

“The way the system has worked in the past is when someone reports to us that a streetlight isn’t working, we pass that information along to PNM,” Ross said. “They open a maintenance order on it and then they get it fixed.

“What we’re doing moving forward, however, is we’re going to try to make that process more efficient,” he said, “and have people just report broken streetlights directly to PNM instead of going through us as the middleman.”

The new push for residents to report streetlight outages directly to PNM to speed up the maintenance process comes after an accident with a serious injury at what police called an “extremely dark” intersection with inoperable streetlights. On the evening of Jan. 11, the driver of a city-owned snowplow struck two pedestrians dressed in dark clothing as they tried to cross Galisteo Street at Paseo de Peralta, sending both to the hospital.

“The only lighting at the intersection was the traffic signals,” police wrote. “No street lights were on.”

The snowplow driver, Bill Kavanaugh, told police he didn’t know he had hit anyone and that he would have stopped if he had known after leaving the scene. Kavanaugh also told officers the intersection was dark and that he didn’t see anyone crossing the street.

It’s not the first time an unlit intersection has been cited as a factor in a pedestrian accident in Santa Fe. After pedestrian William Tenorio was killed by a drunken driver on Guadalupe Street in November 2008, an accident reconstructionist told a jury that several streetlights were out in the area of the fatal hit-and-run.

The darkened streetlights likely meant the area was not as bright as it might have been, which made Tenorio “difficult to detect if not invisible,” the accident reconstructionist, Jeff Vick, a former police officer, testified in September 2009.

Sandoval, the PNM spokesman, said he couldn’t say whether the streetlight outages contributed to the Jan. 11 accident.

“That I can’t answer,” he said. “I don’t know enough of the details.”

The city announced Jan. 17 — six days after the pedestrian accident — that PNM was asking residents report streetlight outages directly to the utility.

“PNM is working to stay under 1 percent of street lights out and is dedicating more resources to help meet that goal,” according to the city’s announcement.

Officials said the new process was in the works before the snowplow crash, which could lead to litigation against the city.

Kristine Mihelcic, director of the city’s Constituent and Council Services, said her first meeting with PNM on the issue took place around Dec. 10 but that she had been meeting with city staff about it even before then.

“When I reviewed the number and types of requests the city received [through constituent services], overhead lights were on the top of the list,” she said via email. “The whole thing was based on the number of requests and that we were essentially the ‘middleman’ for the process.”

Ross said “it doesn’t appear” the city received any reports of streetlight outages at Galisteo and Paseo de Peralta before the accident.

“But since the accident, we’ve reported them to PNM and as of [Jan. 16], PNM had gotten them up and running,” he said.

While a majority of streetlights in Santa Fe are illuminated at night, the lighting on some streets is better than others. Major thoroughfares, such as Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive, are well-lit but dotted with darkened streetlights.

The dots on other streets are more noticeable.

On St. Michael’s Drive between Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive, for example, 14 of the 50 streetlights on either side of the roadway — or more than a quarter — were out the night of Jan. 15.

When a reporter from The New Mexican called PNM to report a cluster of darkened streetlights on St. Michael’s Drive near Pacheco Street, a customer service representative at the utility initially asked for an address. When the reporter was unable to provide an address, she asked for a pole number, which the reporter also was unable to provide.

The customer service representative eventually accepted a report of streetlight outages near the intersection of St. Michael’s and Pacheco, and said she would “get it reported [and] see if we can get somebody out there as soon as possible.”

Asked how long it would take to fix, the woman said PNM had been “quite behind on these.”

“They deal with emergency [calls] and outages first,” she said. “I would give it a couple of weeks. Five to seven days usually, but now with the cold weather, they’re probably pushed back some.”

Sandoval, the PNM spokesman, said the utility has “spent a lot of time retraining” customer service representatives to handle a wide variety of calls, including inoperable streetlights.

“We’ll go back and talk to our customer service folks about how we can take an area rather than a specific” address or pole number, he said.

Sandoval acknowledged that asking for a pole number is “probably a lot to ask people,” but he said the information would provide the quickest turnaround.

“It’s going to help us repair that streetlight much faster,” he said. “If not, we have to send another crew to go out there and look to see where the streetlight is, and that might cause a little bit of a delay.”

The city’s darkened streetlights seem to be getting more attention. In recent months, the issue has generated two letters to the editor to The New Mexican.

Michael Friestad penned a letter earlier this month encouraging residents to report streetlight outages.

“We in Rio Vista have had some success a year ago. But we are noticing this problem all over town,” he wrote. “Words won’t repair these lights. How to get these lights back in service? Do we have to wait till somebody gets hit by a snowplow?”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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