FutureStructure

Detroit to Complete $185 Million LED Street Lighting Overhaul This Month

It's been two years since the city's exit from bankruptcy and the street lighting is becoming a shining example of the city's rebound.

By JC Reindl, Detroit Free Press, MI / December 15, 2016
Image courtesy of The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit

(TNS) -- It was one of the more notorious signs of Detroit's decay and disarray: block after block of darkened city streets, lined by rows of nonworking streetlights.

But now, two years since the city's exit from bankruptcy, streetlighting is becoming a shining example of the city's rebound.

A three-year, $185-million streetlighting overhaul is nearly completed and will finish this month on time and under budget, Dr. Lorna Thomas, chairwoman of the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit, said Monday. Work crews have replaced tens of thousands of old high-pressure sodium fixtures and their yellowish light with brighter light-emitting diode (LED) lights that use less energy and give off a whiter, cleaner glow.

"This is a symbolic project. It stands for the resurgence of Detroit," Thomas said. "They said it couldn't be done."

With just a few dozen light fixtures to go, officials are ready to celebrate the achievement on Thursday with a lighting ceremony near the riverfront at Atwater and Riopelle streets, just east of the Renaissance Center. Gov. Rick Snyder and other state and local dignitaries are expected.

"It's not the actual last light, but we're going to do something really special," Thomas said.

The relighting project got under way in earnest in early 2014, when an estimated 40% of Detroit's 88,000 old street and alley lights were not working. The outages were due to years of deferred maintenance and vandalism by metal scrappers.

There are now about 65,000 streetlights, a smaller figure that reflects the city's reduced population and the brighter LED technology. The last lights will go up around the new Little Caesars Arena, where the heavy construction work has delayed their installation, Thomas said, adding that all of Detroit's new lights should be up and working by Dec. 31.

The project is the work of the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit, a separate legal entity from regular city government. The PLA took shape in 2013 to essentially replace the city's old Detroit Lighting Department and use its financial independence to borrow the large sums needed for financing the overhaul when Detroit was broke.

The PLA hired contractors who went went ZIP code by ZIP code through city neighborhoods replacing the old streetlights and light poles. They also upgraded 85% to 90% of the lighting system's wiring and circuitry infrastructure, Thomas said.

To deter vandalism, the new streetlights don't have copper at their base and they use more overhead wiring instead of the underground wiring, which thieves often liked to pull out and sell.

Several neighborhoods including Indian Village, Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest paid extra to have decorative poles and light fixtures installed. Some commercial districts, including parts of downtown, also received new, fancier streetlights.

Financing for the project came through New York-based Citicorp, which underwrote the bond issues. The bonds are to be repaid over 30 years with $12.5 million annually from Detroit’s utility tax.

Thomas said the project came in under budget, although precise figures were not immediately available Monday. Nevertheless, one surprising cost has been the need to replace the 50 to 60 light poles in the city that get hit by cars very month.

"It is usually from a car that misses a turn or something and plows down a pole," said Thomas, who believes the car-versus-pole collisions are accidents rather than sabotage.

There is now supposed to be a streetlight at the corner of every occupied residential block. Blocks between 300 feet and 600 feet in length are to have an extra light in the middle, or about one light every five houses. Longer blocks were to get additional lights.

Lighting officials concede that the new LEDs may not illuminate all sidewalks and yards in the neighborhoods as well as the old lights sometimes did — when the old lights worked. That is largely because the LEDs give off a more directed beam of light onto the street, with less spilling over beyond the street.

An abrupt resignation

The project has not been without controversy.

The lighting authority's former CEO, Odis Jones, abruptly resigned last February amid reports of a heated disagreement involving him and Mayor Mike Duggan. Revelations later emerged in the media about $500,000 in unexplained severances and settlement payouts for Jones and other past PLA employees.

Current lighting officials and Duggan's office have declined to discuss the circumstances of Jones' departure or offer explanations for the payouts, which included a $250,000 severance for Jones, a $58,000 severance for the PLA's former chief operating officer who became Jones' private business partner, and $200,000 in settlements to two purported whistleblowers who were fired from their PLA jobs.

Jones' employment contract had specified a severance only if he were fired without cause, not for a resignation.

A Detroit native, Jones was the PLA's first boss and starred as the upbeat face of Detroit's post-bankruptcy comeback in nationwide TV commercials and magazine ads by Citibank that highlighted the bank's role in financing the project.

After his departure, Jones went to work at a real estate company in Detroit's Renaissance Center, MVP Capital Ventures, that he started and previously ran as a side job while still at the authority. This past July, he filed a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Scripps Media, the corporate owner of WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), whose reporter, Ronnie Dahl, highlighted the severances and settlement deals.

The lawsuit claims the newscasts tarnished Jones' good reputation by implying that he was involved in shadowy and illegal activities.

Scripps Media's lawyer has denied all of Jones' defamation claims and says the news stories were true. Dahl, who left Channel 7 In October for a job with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said her departure was unrelated to Jones' legal action. The lawsuit is still pending.

It's unlikely that Jones will be on hand at Thursday's mission-accomplished ceremony for the streetlighting project. Last month, he took a new job as city manager for the Austin, Texas, suburb of Hutto, population 22,722.

©2016 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.