Muncie, Ind., is doing it. So is Santa Rosa, Calif. Now, Colorado Springs joins a growing number of cities across America reverting to the dark ages to save money. Shutting off street lights, they've decided, is an easy way to carve cash from tight budgets.
Starting next month, the Springs will cut $1,245,000 in street light expense, a 27 percent reduction from this year. Exactly how many of the city's 24,512 lights will be turned off isn't yet clear, but it could require thousands to hit the savings target.
For Matthew Elbert, who gets around on a bicycle, darker streets spell danger, and not just from criminals. If he can't see that curblines don't have ramps, he could crash and be seriously hurt.
"Thanks to no lighting, I end up in the hospital," he says, as he pedals down Cascade Avenue. "I get it. They take a lot of energy to run. But my safety is important."
His friend, Paula Chambers, says it's a bad time to make the streets darker, now that the city's reducing bus service. More people, herself included, will be walking farther between bus stops, and her street — Pikes Peak Avenue between Academy and Murray boulevards — already is unduly dim.
Coast to coast
The embattled economy has been darkening streets in smaller cities. Muncie, a city of 65,000 about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis, plans to shut off 85 percent of its street lights to save $315,000, according to media reports, and at least two other Indiana towns have turned off every other light, with one setting lights to extinguish at midnight. USA Today reports that Dennis, Mass., is thinking about shutting down 832 lights to save $50,000 a year, and South Portland, Maine, joined other area towns, to get rid of 112 lights, saving $20,000 a year.
One of the biggest cutbacks is in Santa Rosa, which will shut off 6,400 of the city's 16,000 street lights over two years and place an additional 3,200 on timers to shut down from midnight to 5:30 a.m. Savings: $400,000 a year.
Santa Rosa's guidelines, says public works director Rick Moshier, call for leaving lights on at intersections and "anywhere there's a traffic safety concern." He expected a public outcry, but it hasn't happened. In a neighborhood of 5,000 homes, 10 people griped and only two complaints remain unresolved.
"People have accepted it," Moshier says.
Moshier's crews started shutting down lights in September, and so far haven't noticed a crime surge.
"Criminals need to see what they're doing, and it kind of gives them away if they're carrying a flashlight," he says. "Lights on motion detectors can be better than lights in general."
It's impossible to predict whether crime will rise here, because there's little research on the topic. A 2002 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority study found lighting can reduce some crimes, but not all. The study did conclude, however, that lighting influences residents' perceptions of their safety, something not lost on Springs Police Lt. David Whitlock.
"I think intuitively one would have the impression a dimly or poorly lit area would invite criminal activity," he says. "We are concerned about it."
Giving in to burnout
But Whitlock says police are confident in the policy adopted by the city and Colorado Springs Utilities, which oversees street lights and bills the city for costs. Among the guidelines: High foot-traffic areas will remain lit. Lights will be maintained at intersections (especially those with traffic signals), at mid-block crosswalks, in school areas and at hospital emergency entrance approaches. Lights with least-efficient bulbs — 700- and 1,000-watt mercury vapor bulbs — will be discontinued, and lights in areas with high ambient lighting, such as shopping malls, will be shut off.
When bulbs expire after their usual four to five years, restoration of service will be evaluated case by case. Same goes for when lights get knocked down. About 375 bulbs burn out monthly, with 2,400 out at any given time, Utilities officials say.
Slipping into the shadows has Dave Munger worried. Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, which represents 140 neighborhoods in the city, says CONO already is overwhelmed with the loss of code enforcement officers and police patrols, and the possible demise of community centers, all due to budget cuts. Now the group can add street lights to the list.
"I know that nobody's going to be happy," he says.
Even the downtown area, which attracts lots of pedestrians, won't be immune.
"Downtown will be evaluated just like every other neighborhood," says Downtown Partnership official Ron Butlin.
For those who can't take "lights off" as a final answer, the city is working up a price schedule; you or your block may be able to pay to keep certain ones on. Utilities estimates the cost of lighting a single street light is $10.95 per month for energy alone.
How long the darkness will ensue is anyone's guess.
"If the money is there, I would think Council would look toward restoring them," Councilman Randy Purvis says. "But it's unsure when that day would show up."
Meanwhile, residents and business owners could help the situation by leaving their outdoor lights on.
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