Heard About the Plan to Get Rid of Half of Detroit's Street Lights?

May 03, 2012, 5:12 PM by  Bill McGraw

Street lights are in the news these days.

Cities from coast to coast – most notably Highland Park – have turned off lights as they struggle to fix recession-battered budgets.

For decades, Detroit has been a national leader in turning off lights, even if it didn’t want to turn them off.

These days, though, Detroit officials have been working on a plan that would embrace a serious lights-off policy. They want to drastically cut the number of street lights the city tries to keep lit.

There are between 86,000 and 88,000 street lights in Detroit today. About 60 percent actually work, according to Mayor Dave Bing.

It seems officials have decided to reduce the number of lights to 46,000.

I know there has been a lot going in city government lately, but cutting the number of street lights almost in half seems like a major development. But the proposal has received little publicity.

The person who broke the story was Kirk Cheyfitz, who runs an ad agency in New York called Story Worldwide. Cheyfitz is interested in Detroit’s street lights as part of a new, grassroots journalism project, Detroit 143. He wrote a guest column for the Detroit News April 12, but the News failed to see the news in it, and buried the story.

“If Mayor Bing sticks to his timetable,” Cheyfitz wrote, “Detroit neighborhoods soon will be confronted with a question that will determine the shape of the city for years to come: Which street lights must stay lit and which can go dark forever?”

Then, two weeks ago, when the city released information about its new, whittled-down budget, page A5 of the summary contained an interesting declaration. Discussing the city’s desire to form a lighting authority that will be able to issue debt to finance system repairs, the summary said:

“The primary goal of the authority will be to reconfigure the street lighting footprint, paring down the current 86,000 lights to approximately 46,000. The new lighting footprint will cater to Detroit’s current population centers and provide reliable service and added safety where it is needed most.”

That raises some questions, including, How did officials arrive at 40,000 as the number of street lights to be eliminated? Where are at the current “population centers?”

Cheyfitz zeroed in on how reducing the number of street lights is the gateway decision to downsizing the city.

“So the street light issue appears to be Detroit’s first real encounter with the fundamental puzzle of its survival,” he wrote.

Along with yellow crime tape and fires, nothing says urban dysfunction like pitch-black neighborhoods. And the number in Detroit seem to be growing. A friend who drives down Gratiot to downtown every day from 8 Mile has created a hobby of counting the broken streetlights she sees. Her current tally is 500.

With city officials recently agreeing to a consent agreement with the state to solve the city’s budget catastrophe, so much about Detroit is in flux these days.

But the street light-reduction plan bears close watching as leaders try, in their stumbling fashion, to recreate a viable city.

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