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Detroit Street-Light Project Lets Life Go On After Dark

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June 17 (Bloomberg) -- A Detroit agency replaces 100 broken street lights each day using borrowed money in a plan to brighten neighborhoods where darkness breeds crime and fear.

About 9,000 brighter lamps have been installed since February, with another 55,000 to go. The initiative, aided by a White House advisory group on the city’s power grid, has elicited an outpouring of gratitude from residents who have watched block after block fade out during decades of decline.

“I’ve been hugged an awful lot of times,” said Kenneth Stahl, of contractor Corby Energy Services Inc., as his crew installed light-emitting-diode lamps on Detroit’s east side.

The project is a literal beacon of hope. About 40 percent of the Motor City’s 88,000 street lights were broken, many ruined by scavengers who stole wiring. Those remaining were old and dim, adding a wash of gloom over a city that last year filed the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy and struggles to provide basic services.

The new Public Lighting Authority of Detroit plans a $185.7 million bond issue starting June 25 to complete the replacement of 64,500 lights by 2016. Only uninhabited areas won’t be relit, said Odis Jones, its chief executive.

“Our lights will be illuminating at the level of Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston,” said Jones, 43, a native Detroiter.

That’s dramatic improvement for a system that’s left swaths of the city in eerie darkness and made it an international symbol of urban dysfunction.

Light Lifting

“This will help out tremendously,” said Sampson Staples, Jr., 69, as the street-light crew worked on a pole in front of his house on Detroit’s east side. The retired city worker pointed to a spruce on the lawn next door that he said could conceal a mugger.

“With that light there, it’s a deterrent,” Staples said. “People can’t hide as easily.”

Danny West, who was working on the crew, said he installs as many as 20 a day. Residents turn out with food and beverages.

The project calls for 18,000 more lights than did an abandoned plan by former Mayor Dave Bing to nudge residents together in part by letting sparse neighborhoods remain dark. Of Detroit’s 139 square miles (360 square kilometers), about 37 square miles consist of scattered vacant lots and parks, according to city planners.

Strung Up

“We’re not going to spend money on infrastructure in areas where the city plans to turn them into farms,” Jones said at his downtown office. “We’ve got a huge urban farming initiative. We’re thoughtful about how it blends into what we do.”

To prevent theft and damage, new lights use overhead connections and aluminum wires, which are less valuable to thieves than copper, Jones said. All corners will get one and there’ll be least one on blocks longer than 300 feet.

The LEDs use solid-state technology and cast a whiter light than sodium lamps, which use pressurized gas to glow yellow. LEDs use less energy, are easier to maintain and last longer. Detroit’s are twice as bright as the previous 70-watt sodium models.

The LEDs are supplied by Cree Inc. of Durham, North Carolina; Leotek Electronics USA Corp. of San Jose, California, and Walker-Miller Energy Services LLC of Detroit. The companies have agreed to train Detroit students in technology and urban infrastructure.

Efficient Infrastructure

The city will save in energy and maintenance, said Scott Thomsen, spokesman for Seattle City Light, a utility that’s part of a U.S. Department of Energy advisory group assembled in December. The group also includes officials from New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Cleveland.

Seattle City Light spent $16.7 million to replace 41,000 units from 2010 to 2013, saving $2.6 million each year, Thomsen said.

The cost of fixtures has dropped 50 percent since 2010, according to a November report by the utility. Still, Detroit’s project is more expensive because it includes wiring and poles, said Edward Smalley, a Seattle engineer who’s led the task force.

Detroit’s degraded system is a public emergency, Smalley said.

“They’ve been hit by a Hurricane Katrina in slow motion,” he said. “It’s astonishing that things are being held together.”

Borrowed Money

Detroit’s authority, approved by Michigan’s legislature, was formed in 2013. It is led by a five-member board appointed by the mayor and city council and has a credit rating separate from that of the bankrupt city, which has $18 billion in long-term debt.

The agency sold $60 million in bonds in December to begin the project. They will be paid off with a portion of the sale planned next week. The new debt is rated A- by Standard & Poor’s, its seventh-highest investment grade, and is backed by $12.5 million collected annually from Detroit’s utility users tax. The Michigan Finance Authority will issue the securities on its behalf.

The authority has installed lights mainly in two pilot areas on Detroit’s west and east sides.

James Kelker, 60, said his living room has a new glow.

“If I leave the blinds open, I don’t have to put a light on in the house,” he said as he strolled after sunset, casting a stark shadow on the lawn. “I like it lit up like this, it’s almost like daytime.”

A half-mile away, a main thoroughfare had no working illumination for blocks.

Jones said installations will be tweaked as crews learn from the pilot areas. Residential streets will be lit first, then eight main arteries.

Jones recalled his parents’ order when he was growing up in Detroit: Come home when the lights come on.

“Lights are more than just lighting the streets,” Jones said. “It gets to be a sense of place, a sense of community.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Christoff in Detroit at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at Mark Schoifet

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