Lighting Authority Tries to Illuminate Detroit

Let there be light.

Nov 12, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Walking into the mechanical heart of Detroit’s public lighting authority during an investigative piece by investigative reporter Charlie LeDuff and our friends at WJBK Fox 2 has been analogized to that of a neutron bomb going off in 1959.

It’s the power grid that time forgot or, more aptly, that city government neglected to maintain. According to Fox 2, not a penny has been invested for upgrades in the city’s decrepit lighting utility in 40 years.

With less than 10 full-time employees left to maintain the 1,800 miles of service lines serving Detroit’s sprawling city limits, residents shouldn’t be surprised that, by last estimate, 40 percent of the city’s 88,000 street and alley lights are inoperative.

However, when Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, took up his posting last spring, he told city dwellers that getting streetlights back online were a priority. On Nov. 8, Orr began a multi-year task to do just that after crews began repairs and reinstallation effort in two city neighborhoods.

Labeled as “pilot areas,” one of which is on the east side and the other on the west side, the newly re-skinned Public Lighting Authority began the work of relamping and rewiring the street lighting system. Odis Jones, the executive director of the PLA, which was formed early in 2013, said the areas are demonstration zones and that the project is expected to take three years to complete.

The authority and its five-member board of citizen volunteers have set forth the goal of eliminating all outages as crews continue repairs as well as truncate the system to serve the current population. PLA says it plans to eventually maintain 46,000 streetlights.

“We no longer have a population of 1.5 million, so the system has to be right-sized to meet the needs of today’s residents,” Jones told The Detroit News last week.

The authority already has the funds to pay for the two demonstration areas, which have about 5,000 streetlights all together. That work is scheduled to be completed by year’s end.

Of course, in the world that Detroit now occupies, nothing can be simple, and a motion filed by one of the city’s creditors, New York-based Syncora Guarantee Inc., an insurer of Detroit’s pension-related debt, is objecting to the $70 million-plus plan, asking to enjoin the PLA from any infrastructure upgrades until the city’s creditors are repaid in full.

Syncora’s objection includes calling into question Detroit’s intent to dedicate utility tax revenues specifically to the authority, which was created by the state legislature last December to make the city’s utility department a stand-alone public utility.

The insurance company’s motion was the first by a major city creditor to block Orr’s plan to redirect $1.25 billion back into infrastructure improvements from the city’s debt and liabilities obligations.

Undeterred, the work to restore lights in the pilot areas goes on and the authority says its comprehensive plan for the $160 million effort to relight the city during the next three years continues.