Complaints of broken street lights have more than tripled in Philly, and some neighborhoods are darker than ever

Denise Wilson doesn’t see a lot of crime in her neighborhood – but again, she can’t see much after dark.

Dozens of streetlights in its lower northeastern Philadelphia neighborhood have been said to have been off for weeks. As night falls, the drab, yellow glow of the corner bodega’s sign is the brightest light on its street, in the Crescentville section of town.

“It’s like being in a dark tunnel,” said Wilson, 48. “Daylight saving only made it worse.”

Wilson’s block is not an outlier. The streets of Philadelphia are darker than they have been in years. City officials let a light maintenance contract expire in June and took more than three months to negotiate a new deal – with the same contractor, at more than triple the price.

Since then, reports of extinguished streetlights have more than tripled, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from the city’s 311 complaints. Prior to this year, the city received an average of 900 complaints per month from residents about street light failures. But since July, that number has swelled, averaging around 3,000 per month, including duplicate outage reports.

Fewer complaints are also resolved. Today, Philadelphia has the largest backlog of broken lights since the city began tracking the problem in 2014. For the first time, blackouts are among the two most common 311 complaints in the city – exceeding the most common nuisance. more common such as illegal landfills, graffiti or garbage collection delays. (Abandoned cars are still at the top of the grievance list.)

On blocks like Wilson’s, the impact of months of deferred lamppost maintenance is clearly visible – and it can be more than just a nuisance.

Wilson said one of his neighbors was robbed on his way home at night in early November, and it was so dark the woman couldn’t even describe her attacker.

Then, on the evening of November 20, a gunman shot dead Jessica Covington, 32, and her unborn child as she got out of her car a few steps from Wilson’s house. The district attorney’s office said police investigators recovered CCTV footage, but many broken street lights left the footage “extremely” dark.

Police have yet to make an arrest.

The city should have known about this problem, Wilson said. Data from the 311 calls show residents have registered nearly 30 complaints this year about broken lights within a two-block radius of where Covington was killed. Few have been corrected.

“We’ve been complaining for months,” Wilson said. “The lights are out and that makes him so dangerous. “

The city’s street service is responsible for the maintenance of more than 148,000 lampposts.

The backlog dates back to July, shortly after a municipal contract expired with a maintenance company hired to fix broken street lights, known as American Lighting & Signalization (ALS). Streets Department spokeswoman Crystal Jacobs said the department only started looking for a replacement contract in August and it was not until mid-October to finalize a deal. relying on a few in-house technicians and an emergency maintenance provider for four months.

The streets department said negotiations were delayed because the department “hoped to negotiate a better rate based on the terms of the requirements contract,” Jacobs said.

Despite the months of waiting, the seller has not changed. ALS won the new one-year contract to continue servicing the streetlights, growing from $ 2 million to over $ 6.5 million. Jacobs said it was the lowest offer, which the city must accept by law, and blamed labor shortages and wage rates.

ALS could not be reached for comment.

The delay resulted in more than 12,700 open service requests for outages, according to 311. The streets department – which says it can fix about 2,000 lights a month with an active contractor – was unable to provide schedule on how long it would take to catch up. on repairs.

“Crews continue to reduce the current backlog while responding to incoming calls,” said Jacobs.

The backlog has also accumulated at a time when the street service is modernizing its entire lighting network.

In 2019, the city pledged to replace existing high-pressure sodium bulbs with modern LED lights – a long-awaited infrastructure upgrade that would generate more ambient light with less energy. The timeline was set for two or three years, but to date the ministry says it has only installed about 12,000 LED lights out of the 100,000 on offer.

Meanwhile, the growing blackouts have left many residents, like Wilson, saying they are more afraid of crime, while pedestrians, cyclists and drivers say dim light makes roads less safe at night.

It’s hard to say how far-reaching the impact of street light outages has been on crime in Philadelphia. But Aaron Chalfin, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that lighting has long affected criminal behavior in both obvious and surprising ways.

Chalfin conducted a study of the Chicago Lighting Network and found that crime did not necessarily increase in blocks with multiple light failures, but rather that adjacent streets peaked.

The reason: people were more likely to avoid blocks with broken lights.

“This is proof that crime is light sensitive,” Chalfin said. “The light will change human activity and crime. “

But some parts of the city lived more in the Dark Ages than others.

Data shows Northeast Philadelphia and South Philadelphia, two dense areas, had the highest concentration of extinguished bulb reports, with thousands of open complaints, while less populated areas like Chestnut Hill had them. less than a hundred.

Elected officials took note. In September, State Representative Chris Rabb, who represents parts of northwest Philadelphia, tweeted a complaint about a light near his house that had been off for about four weeks. “You [folks] usually repairs these lights in a day or two! He tweeted to the streets department.

District city council offices have also been inundated with voter service calls regarding persistent delays in minor repairs. West Philadelphia council member Jamie Gauthier’s district has been hit hard by the blackouts – with over 800 open complaints about broken lights pending. His office alone has filed 28 reports of broken lighting at 311 since July.

“I’m frustrated with the city’s lack of action,” said Gauthier.

Pedestrian and cyclist advocates also lament the delays, noting that dimly lit streets create dangerous conditions for everyone on the streets at night.

James Gitto, president of the West Passyunk Neighbors Association and a member of the board of trustees of 5th Square, the town planners political action committee, lives in a hard-hit section of South Philadelphia – which has the most reported blackouts of all postal codes and the second highest rate per capita.

The breakdowns are particularly visible on foot or by bicycle.

“People drive without headlights and you can’t see the cars coming,” Gitto said. “You also never know if there is a giant hole in the road.”

Jacobs, the head of the streets department, said there was no prioritization process for certain areas or neighborhoods. Requests through 311 are assigned to technicians, who then determine the route to complete repairs, Jacobs said.

Sometimes, however, repairs seem to happen faster when the problem is brought to light.

Last week, a bright lamp lit for the first time in months at the corner of where Jessica Covington was killed in Crescentville, lighting up a sanctuary with stuffed animals and flowers.

The street service confirmed that technicians had arrived to repair the light above the crime scene the day after the murder news was announced.

But Wilson, the neighbor, says the city only fixed one of the many unlit bulbs on the dark block.

“The others,” Wilson said, “are still absent.”

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