It was just a small issue in a big city -- a metal light pole on 11th Street SE went dark.
The solution was simple enough: A lighting crew on contract with the District pulled up to the pole one recent evening, and within minutes a worker in the bucket of a cherry-picker had replaced the 400-watt tube-shaped bulb.
But it took a phone call the night before from a concerned resident to alert the city to the faulty light. Unlike the computerized system that notifies officials immediately to traffic signal problems, there is no speedy, automated way for the D.C. Department of Transportation to know when one of its 66,000 street and alley lights is on the blink.
City officials spend millions annually to keep the streetlights in working order, but they said the vast and often antiquated streetlight system has slowed and complicated their efforts.
The malfunctioning lamp on 11th Street SE near Lincoln Park and hundreds of others that flicker out have taken on a new urgency after the slaying of a waiter in the Dupont Circle area. Shortly after 2 a.m. Aug. 23, Adrien D. Alstad was shot once in the chest in the 1800 block of R Street NW during an apparent holdup as he walked home from his shift at Annie's Paramount Steak House -- on a poorly lighted street.
The shooting led the Downtown Cluster of Congregations to demand action from transportation officials. Terry Lynch, executive director of the coalition of churches and synagogues, said streetlight outages have contributed to crime in D.C. neighborhoods for years. "When those lights are out, people are at risk from this crime wave," Lynch said.
Robert Halligan, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission official in the Dupont Circle area, said it took him six months to get the city to fix a broken light outside his home on Riggs Place NW. Two muggings occurred while the light was out, he said. "I ended up saying, 'Just drop the light bulbs off, I'll climb the pole and do it myself,' " Halligan said. He never had to, though -- he said the light was fixed only after he sent a tersely worded e-mail to top transportation officials.
Dan Tangherlini, the city's transportation director, said locating and repairing broken streetlights, as well as improving response to requests for service, have been a longtime priority for his agency. Of the street and alley lights in the District, he said, 1,000 to 2,000 could be out at any given time: "To have a 97 to 98 percent success rate on something is pretty good, but we strive for 100 percent."
Lynch was shocked at the number of outages. "I find it a scandalous situation, the fact that so many streetlights are not working," he said, adding that his group plans to urge the D.C. Council to hold hearings on the matter.
Tangherlini said his department repairs an average of 1,000 streetlights each month and spends nearly $11 million annually on streetlight maintenance and operation. The agency learns of outages in various ways -- from residents contacting the city call center (at 202-727-1000) and from frequent day and evening patrols by its staff and contractors. In addition, the department conducts a semiannual survey of all lights; the next survey is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
But Tangherlini said the outdated technology of some lights and the unpredictability and vastness of the system limit what his agency can do. "It's not so obvious and simple," he said.
There's a wide variety of lights, poles and wiring, and each part has advantages and drawbacks. The city's roughly 12,000 incandescent bulbs have a short service life, so crews replace each one every six months regardless of whether the bulb is out, officials said. The Transportation Department estimated that it would cost about $6 million to replace the remaining incandescents with longer-lasting bulbs.
The wiring of many poles poses a different set of problems that can lengthen repair time. So-called series circuits depend on outdated technology that is prone to error and can knock out a large number of lights if just one goes out, similar to some Christmas tree lights. Officials said they have replaced 900 series circuits and are working to replace the remaining 300 by 2006.
In addition, some wiring sits in old, rusted pipes used for gas streetlights that date to the late 1800s. The pipes have been known to collapse and have holes that allow water and debris to damage the wiring, officials said. City officials said 1.5 million feet of gas-pipe conduit is still in use.
Other problems are created by lead cable buried in the ground that feeds into 9,000 lights. The cable has no protection from tree roots and construction equipment. The Transportation Department estimated that it would cost $300 million to upgrade the buried cable and gas-pipe conduit.
Lacking a computerized system that signals immediate outages, Tangherlini said, the agency has put transmitters on 138 light poles along several blocks of North Capitol Street as part of a pilot project. An outage on one pole is transmitted to an Internet database. Tangherlini said the department is considering using the system on a citywide basis.