Half of Detroit’s Streetlights May Go Out as City Shrinks

Chris Christoff, Bloomberg, May 24, 2012

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa RosaCalifornia; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners.

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Detroit’s dwindling income and property-tax revenue have required residents to endure unreliable buses and strained police services throughout the city. Because streetlights are basic to urban life, deciding what areas to illuminate will reshape the city, said Kirk Cheyfitz, co-founder of a project called Detroit143—named for the 139 square miles of land, plus water—that publicizes neighborhood issues.

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There’s already experience snuffing out streetlights within Detroit’s borders. Highland Park, a 3-square-mile city encircled by its larger neighbor, removed 1,100 of 1,600 streetlights last year, after piling up a $4 million debt to DTE Energy. The move saves $45,000 a month, said Alejandro Bodipo-Memba, a spokesman for the company.

Only major streets and intersections remain lit in the city of 12,000, once home to Chrysler Group LLC’s namesake car manufacturer and Henry Ford‘s first moving assembly line. {snip}

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Jamahl Makled, 40, said he’s owned businesses in southwest Detroit for about two decades, most recently cell-phone stores. He said they’ve have been burglarized more than a dozen times.

“In the dark, criminals are comfortable,” Makled said. “It’s not good for the economy and the safety of the residents.”

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North of there, on a stretch of West Grand Boulevard, the bases of light poles show where thieves tore out the wiring.

As many as 15,000 Detroit streetlights use 1920s technology, according to a 2010 study by McKinsey & Co. Upgrading the system would cost $140 million to $200 million, and $5 million more to operate than the $23 million now spent annually, the report said.

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That’s just one reason Detroit is digging out of a $265 million deficit and saddled with more than $12 billion in long- term debt. To avoid a state takeover, Detroit agreed in April to have its finances overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the city and the state.

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