Stop letting the lights stay dark

January 27, 2019

Just as with weedy medians, road repairs or removing snow from sidewalks and streets, the state of a town’s streetlights is likely not the biggest issue facing a municipal government.

Yet whether government simply reacts to lights that don’t work or does more to prevent disrepair tells citizens a lot about the efficiency and efficacy of their representatives. We have seen the city of Santa Fe start to attack the weeds before they become gigantic, hiring staff earlier and doing proactive maintenance. Additional crew members are taking to the roads to fix weather-related potholes. There’s a consistent plan to clean the streets after snowfall — sidewalks need more attention, both to remove snow and repair crumbling walks, but that’s up to residents. The city is making progress at anticipating, rather than reacting, to maintenance.

Still, for all recurring problems, the city needs better systems and plans of attack.

And so it is with streetlights, too often broken and bleak, failing to light the way below for pedestrians and drivers. That is dangerous, both because of possible accidents — witness the incident earlier this month when a snowplow driver struck two pedestrians downtown — and because criminal behavior thrives in darkness.

But streetlight repairs are not necessarily a city responsibility. Public Service Company of New Mexico owns and maintains 40 percent of the lights. Neither PNM nor the city have the staffing to go out hunting for darkened lights. Citizens — that is, all of us — must do their parts to report malfunctioning lights.

Reporter Daniel J. Chacón, prompted by citizen questions and the recent accident, decided to get to the bottom of how are streetlights are repaired and maintained. The answers he received, both from the city and PNM, show some progress, but much remains to be done. For now, the biggest change is that citizens are being encouraged to call PNM directly — no more going through the city.

Still, that system waits for complaints to come; there is no plan to seek out problems before they are reported. Yes, a city or private company having a fleet of workers charged with seeking out streetlights for repair would be inefficient. But surely, workers — whether from PNM or the city — can report lights that don’t work, too.

Citizens should call in when the light on the corner is out of commission. But if city employees are driving home from work, or PNM crew members are on a call and see a light out, why wouldn’t they just report it? Albuquerque even has an online map showing whether the city or the utility company owns lights; it’s possible to report outages online, too.

Police officers are out and about at night — they must see streetlights that don’t work. Same with firefighters. Develop a quick way to report lights that are out. That way, a worker at night can push a button to let someone who can fix the light know. Make it everyone’s business to see that lights work all over the city. That’s the attitude Mayor Alan Webber has been trying to foster at City Hall.

Functioning lights are more than cosmetic, too. A 2009 report from the Pacific Institute concludes that, “While research on the effects of improved street lighting on crime rates is not entirely definitive, an analysis of eight different studies found that improved street lighting — either through more lights or brighter lights — reduced crime by an average of 7 percent.”

Adequate lighting improves safety, boosts community pride and prompts better traffic flow. The issue of lighting streets goes beyond fixing broken ones; there’s a question of how many are needed, how to direct illumination so that night skies are protected and in this era of climate change, how to use more environmentally friendly lights. Whatever lights are in use, eventually the bulb will fail and the top of the light pole will go dark.

Making sure the lights work could be everyone’s job — devise incentives for people who report the most out-of-commission lights. In areas with a lot of foot traffic — downtown, for example — there could be a proactive effort to walk streets and see where repairs are needed, rather than waiting for calls to come in. As lights are repaired, too, the city can make sure that newer lights are energy-efficient, with the glare pointing down and protecting the night skies. At every opportunity, we should work to fix broken lights and improve on what exists going forward.

Eventually, we all become involved and invested in making our city function at tip-top efficiency. In the process, Santa Fe becomes a clean, well-lighted place. For all of us.

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