Detroit is making plans to dump its Public Lighting Department.
At first blush, Mayor Dave Bing’s proposal appears to be a sensible—albeit long overdue – conduit to the department’s persistent problem of widespread outages, which have placed many neighborhoods in danger for years. But don’t expect city streets to magically light up. Detroiters won’t stop cursing the darkness anytime soon.
The plan to privatize the management of DPLD, if not the entire system, is contained in the Bing administration’s 2012-13 budget document. It includes a recommendation to transfer operations of the city’s electricity grid from the DPLD to a third-party operator, an independent authority. At some future date, the city would completely divest itself of its public lighting role.
The mayor should be commended for taking what may be the boldest step yet to get the city out of the public lighting business. The lighting department has been irresponsible in keeping streetlights on or providing electricity for other city departments, Joe Louis Arena and public institutions such as Wayne State University. The operation has all the elements of a brownout waiting to happen.
The deficiencies of the DPLD are legendary.
Since the 1980s, the city has vainly tried to fix the aging system. Voters even authorized millions in bonds for capital improvements to the antiquated lighting system. Some of the bond money was earmarked for converting a part of the city lighting operation to Detroit Edison.
The department did convert a sizable percentage of the targeted streetlights under a multi-million dollar streetlight modernization project. But sections of the city remained in the dark. Moreover, the system is a perennial money loser.
At one point, Detroit Edison expressed interested in purchasing the system. But as the DPLD fell into further disrepair, Edison’s interest disappeared. Even under the mayor’s proposal, he could have difficulty attracting a bidder or unloading the system in its current condition without some additional cost to the city.
A new lighting partnership with an independent provider makes sense. Detroit Edison, for example, already provides electricity to Detroit homes and private businesses and produces power more cheaply than the city. For decades, the city has connected with Detroit Edison circuits to operate lights downtown. In addition to its private consumers, Edison often supplies crews to restore power to streetlights after storms – in less than half the time of the public lighting department.
Contributing factors weighing against continued city control are insufficient maintenance, personnel, procurement delays and faulty equipment. Inadequate funding to replace aged underground conduits, cables and fixtures add to the dysfunction. These inefficiencies strengthen the conviction that the city should have privatized the system long ago.
When the sun goes down the lights don’t come on in too many neighborhoods. Streetlight outages are not only chronic, dark streets are a top citizen complaint year after year. Adequate lighting is not only critical for safe auto traffic and pedestrian travel it decreases citizen fears about unsafe neighborhoods.
The mayor’s proposal seems to recognize that the problems at one of the country’s oldest utilities are too chronic and costly to be remedied by conventional means. Although a stopgap measure, over the long a haul the city’s objective should be to transform the short-circuited lighting agency into a business driven by the latest technological and competitive forces. That’s not possible under city management.
Employee union officials and the some members of the City Council have historically been opposed to the city divesting itself of the DPLD. This resistance strategy is the equivalent of “dim bulb” politics. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods will likely remain dark on any given night while internal disputes like these are resolved.
Detroiters are entitled to lighted, safe neighborhoods and a city administration better capable of delivering essential services. Since the city administration can’t effectively make this happen, it should get rid of the utility without further delay.