What's going on with New Orleans' streetlights?
New Orleans’ streetlight problem is as complex as any of the city’s infrastructure troubles. Intuitively, fixing a streetlight sounds easy. Just put in a new bulb, right? Not so fast! Katrina damaged many poles and wires so replacing a dark bulb may not bring the light back on. The bulb could be fine it’s the wire that’s faulty. You just don’t know until you get to the pole. No comprehensive inspection has been performed to determine the status of each pole. These inspections cost money.
Repeated vandalism to specific streetlights is another challenge. A de facto policy to ignore vandalized lamps in favor of ones more likely to survive repair has sprung up. Repair crews are understandably frustrated trying to keep the lights on with a fraction of the bulbs needed. Who can blame them? Money is tight after all. Unfortunately, the streets with repeated vandalism are likely the streets that need the light most. Street lighting is a safety issue.
Recently, we got some welcome news. The city will be receiving almost $15 million to switch out old energy-guzzling streetlamp bulbs for more energy efficient LEDs. The Alliance supported this 1-time allocation of rate-payer dollars to the city of New Orleans because of the guaranteed savings of about $5-7 million per year for taxpayers. The City of New Orleans is also an Entergy customer and has been paying for energy efficiency programs that we all enjoy. This 1-time allocation is the result of a rare refund from the Feds. There will be no increase in rates to cover the LED switch over.
The city LED program makes sense but it wasn’t an easy decision. No ratepayer dollars should be going to plug holes in the City budget. Ratepayer dollars are protected under several laws and we cannot be taxed through our electric bill. However, street lighting is a gray area (Entergy managed our streetlights until 2007). There has been tremendous pressure on City Council members and the Mayor to fix the streetlight problem. We witnessed residents bawling out City Council members at neighborhood meetings. “It’s about SAFETY!” was a familiar refrain. The City budget had $0 for streetlight operation and maintenance because FEMA had been subsidizing New Orleans since Katrina. When the FEMA fund ran out, a solution was desperately needed. Cue the federal refund.
A city-wide inspection is still needed to map out the poles in good shape. No point in putting state-of-the-art LEDs on poles with bad wiring. The lamps will get switched out using the $15 Million allocation. Then, the city will have a new revenue stream – the $5-7 million savings off their electric bill. Part of the new revenue stream should fund the operation & maintenance (O&M) of the streetlights. Currently, there are no plans at the City to secure an O&M budget for the lights. We strongly recommend that the City use the new influx of ratepayer funds to create a sustainable streetlight service. Otherwise, we think it’s time to start talking about re-hiring Entergy to manage the lights.