Guest column: First streetlight targeted by “Light Up The City” program rebuffs city’s repair effort

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Roving reporter TimG here… I want to let everyone know how City Hall’s recent street light press conference went, which included an unintentional demonstration of the challenges facing the administration’s new approach to street light repairs.

The Mayor’s office released the following numbers:  New Orleans has 54,400 streetlights of all types.  Approximately 10,917 (20%) of them are currently out, and just under half of those (4,793) require major repairs due to age, vandalism or storm-related damage.  My neighborhood’s oldest outage is a classic example:  It lacks electricity, fed by undeground wires, which are notoriously difficult to trace.  Restoring light to pole PK-211 (the only lamp serving the 4100 block of State) would require running new underground wiring … and it’s just the type of “major repair” the City hopes to address this year.

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Though only slightly more than $1.1 million was needed for streetlight repairs in 2011, City Hall just committed over $9 million to the task and promises “to light up the city by 2013.”  How?  By redirecting federal recovery funds once slated for a now-defunct affordable housing initiative.  Speaking at the press briefing, Mayor Landrieu, Councilmembers Guidry, Johnson and Clarkson, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant and Public Works director Mark Jernigan took turns explaining that the increased budget will afford twice as many crews on the street to address streetlight issues, and their work day will be extended from the current 10 hours to 13 hours, six days a week.  This means as many as “200 streetlights per week” will be restored, if all goes according to plan.

Next, the press and I (the only civilian to attend) were directed to a couple of “photo opps” across the city.  Perhaps owing to inclement weather, only a WDSU news crew showed up to watch a team of technicians troubleshoot a New Orleans East pole lacking power.  We watched them try in vain to trace the dead segment of buried wiring (see photo of testing equipment, below) back to its source.  (NOTE: The same electrical problem plagues my neighborhood’s beloved, infamous pole PK-211.)  With more storm clouds brewing overhead, and for the sake of grabbing a few more exciting shots of their work, All-Star Electric’s men suggested we meet them at a Mid-City location instead.

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Twenty minutes later, standing at the corner of North Carrollton and Orleans Avenue, WDSU and I observed a technician replacing burnt-out bulbs in fixtures along the streetcar line.  He explained that the site was chosen for its high visibility during Jazz Fest — a bus stop is nearby, and fest-goers routinely get dropped off and picked up at that intersection.  The hardest part of his job wasn’t changing the light bulbs; it was safely re-rerouting vehicles and streetcars around his bucket truck!

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Before and after the gathering, I was interviewed by Bill Capo (my idol) of WWL Channel 4 and Camille Whitworth of WDSU Channel 6. Links to their stories and others on this topic appear on StateStreetDrive.com, complete with video coverage.

Capo, Whitworth and several other reporters asked me pointedly whether I believe the City’s redoubled efforts will amount to much.  Of course, I have my doubts … After all, we’re now on our fifth set of contractors since Entergy relinquished streetlight duties, and the City has not finished paying some of the earlier companies’ invoices.  Whether the money — and the increased commitment of manpower — will last the year and achieve Mayor Landrieu’s stated goal of “fixing every streetlight by the end of 2012” remains to be seen.  The City Councilmembers present — several of whom serve on the Council’s Public Works Committee — smiled when they heard the words, “Streetlights are our number one priority.”  Every one of them reiterated that streetlights rival crime as the most common concern among constituents.

By the end of this year, we’ll let those living on unlit streets – where the darkness diminishes residents’ quality of life and amplifies their fear of crime – decide whether the Mayor’s extraordinarily ambitious “Light Up the City 2012” program has succeeded or failed.

When he’s not busy crafting extended metaphors, modeling for art classes or flying his (toy) helicopter across the room, Tim Garrett’s free time is spent searching for change and posting neighborhood news on the NOLAhoods.com blog. His email address is timg@nolahoods.com.

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