ANALYSIS´╝ÜBankrupt Detroit embarks on LED upgrade

Feb 18, 2014

When it gets dark in Detroit, it gets really dark. About half of the city's 88,000 streetlights are believed to be out of action – broken, vandalised or hit by copper theft.

It's just one symptom of Detroit's painful decline. The once mighty car industry has moved on, as has much of its population. Behind them they've left a crumbling city with a spiraling crime rate. To top it all, the city went spectacularly bankrupt last year. In circumstances like these, you can see how streetlight maintenance might get overlooked.

But despite not having any money, Detroit has now pushed streetlighting improvements to the top of its priority list, and is about to begin upgrading thousands of lights to LED.

The Public Lighting Authority, set up in 2012 to get the city's lighting back in shape, has raised US$60 million from bond sales to begin the work, and aims to raise a total of US$150-160 million. Thanks to a court ruling, those funds will not be affected by the city's bankruptcy – whatever disgruntled creditors may say.

The project has its critics – hardly surprising given the city's massive debts and long line of creditors. Yet, as an issue of public safety and sheer quality of life, the news has been welcomed by residents. Bob Berg, who handles publicity for the authority, says locals have been known to hug lighting crews and make them coffee as they work their way around the city, assessing the  antiquated system.

When federal judge Steven Rhodes affirmed the city's eligibility for bankruptcy last summer, he cited Detroit's dilapidated streetlights as a prime example of its decline, lamenting ‘the dark that the citizens of Detroit suffer day in, day out and the crime that results from that'.

Traffic accidents – some fatal – have also been blamed on bad lighting. Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr said in an interview that ‘the lighting question is one of the foremost questions in the city' because of its impact on public safety.

Work underway

Upgrade work is already underway in test areas, and Odis Jones, executive director of the Public Lighting Authority, wants to get the job done swiftly, in 18 months rather than the three years originally mooted. The current high-pressure sodium lamps will be scrapped in favour of 150W LED fittings. The new lights will be brighter, so fewer will be needed. There will be a light at every corner, plus one in the middle of any block that is more than about 100 metres long. ‘LED lights will provide brighter and more cost-efficient lighting for the city,' said Jones.

The legislation also requires the authority to make every effort to ensure local companies do the work.

Berg says the authority has been in touch with other cities that have undergone lighting upgrades, but Detroit's predicament is somewhat unique. ‘They've talked to other cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston, but none of these cities has an infrastructure which is so deteriorated… Detroit has had a problem for a number of years. They just haven't had the resources to fix it.'

As things stand, copper coil theft, failed lamps and maintenance issues leave streets dark, and residents feeling unsafe at night.

‘People just feel better if the lights work,' says Berg. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder agrees, saying the people of Detroit ‘will see tangible quality of life improvements in their neighborhoods'. ‘Enhancing lighting throughout the City of Detroit is one of the top priorities for both the state and the city and this financing clearly demonstrates that commitment, Snyder said.

It is hoped the funding arrangement will serve as a model for other cities. However, the financing has taken some time to come to fruition, with lender Citigroup having sought assurance that money would not be redirected to creditors, pensioners or other parties. Not everyone was happy – Reuters reports that some bond holders, insurers, unions and retirees objected to the deal because it would leave the city with less cash – but on the whole, the bond deal has attracted surprisingly little controversy.

Because of the unusual funding arrangement, the city wants the lights to have a 30-year life. ‘The debt has to be repaid,' says Berg. ‘We're not trying to build a Cadillac,' says Jones. ‘Just a reliable Chevy.'