D.C.’s streetlights are in maintenance limbo

October 5, 2012

Pray your street lights — or alley lights — don’t go out this weekend. (Topher Matthews/Georgetown Metropolitan)

A high-stakes, high-dollar contract dispute has come to this: It’s not at all clear who will be fixing the city’s broken streetlights for at least the next few days.

The District’s transportation department solicited bids more than a year ago for a new contract to replace and maintain the city’s public illumination — including a mandate to install 30,000 energy-efficient LED streetlights by 2016.

How did this turn into the current mess, with no contractor in place to handle the job?

Long story short: In February, the contract was awarded to Citelum, the American subsidiary of a French multinational. A losing bidder, Loudoun County-based M.C. Dean, protested the award. The city pulled back the contract, potentially worth $100 million or more, and rebid it. The second time, M.C. Dean won, and now Citelum is protesting, claiming all sorts of shenanigans.

This has all dragged on for so long that the old contract has lapsed. The city’s first solution to the problem — allow M.C. Dean to start work despite the protest — was rejected by an administrative law judge. The second solution — award a short-term no-bid contract to Dean — was met with yelps of protest from Citelum.

So now, transportation department spokesman John Lisle said Thursday, they’re going to bid out an “emergency” contract. A solicitation has gone out, bids are due early next week, a winner could be picked and a contract signed as soon as Wednesday. “Very quick turnaround,” Lisle said.

Lisle said the city’s own crews should be able to handle the basic maintenance in the meantime, and the emergency contract will just cover maintaining the current system and not the LED replacement plans — which could complicate the contract protest.

The city generally promises that broken streetlights will get fixed in five days or less. If you have reported a broken light that hasn’t been fixed in that time frame, let me know.

If you’re interested in more details about the streetlight drama, Michael Neibauer has been following it for Washington Business Journal. There are high-powered lobbying, PR and law firms at work on all sides. And with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s high-priority plans for the St. Elizabeths east campus tied up in this — Citelum wants to locate a lighting lab there — things could get even messier.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · October 5, 2012