City Council weighing citywide contract converting Philly street lights to LEDs

The modernization project will also mean malfunctioning lights will be fixed based on real-time reports, and not based on resident complaints.

LED lighting in Los Angeles. (General Electric)

LED lighting in Los Angeles. (General Electric)

A multimillion-dollar plan to modernize Philadelphia’s light grid is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Following a hearing on Wednesday, City Council’s Committee on Finance approved a bill that enables the city to enter into a “guaranteed energy savings” contract with the Philadelphia Energy Authority. Under the agreement, Ameresco, an engineering services company, will LED-ify the city’s municipal streetlight system, putting Philadelphia on par with other big cities around the country, including New York and Chicago.

Lawmakers could pass the measure as soon as next week, teeing up a contract that could be valued at more than $90 million.

“It’s going to be transformative for the city,” said Deputy Streets Commissioner Richard Montanez of the long-awaited project.

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Montanez’s department is responsible for managing more than 140,000 streetlights across the city. Once the contract is executed, Ameresco will start converting nearly 120,000 thousand of them to LED lights, including the “cobra heads” that line city streets. Ornamental and non-alley lights will be converted internally by city workers.

All of them, however, will be part of a new lighting management system that will provide real-time information about broken streetlights. The department currently relies on its employees and resident complaints to know when a streetlight needs to be fixed.

The conversion project, slated to take three years, is also expected to improve lighting quality and coverage over city streets, sidewalks and intersections, as well as reduce the city’s carbon and electricity footprints.

Since the initiative was announced in 2019, the Streets Department has replaced roughly 12,000 high-pressure sodium bulbs on its own.

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“We’ve converted lights throughout the city to show neighborhoods and communities what’s being proposed to come in,” said Montanez.

The news comes after the Streets Department shelled out roughly $23,000 in overtime pay to help clear a massive backlog of open service requests for broken streetlights.

The “bulk” of the complaints piled up after the department failed to renew an expiring city contract for streetlight repairs, said spokesperson Crystal Jacobs.

The backlog dates back to last July, and continued to grow until the city finalized a one-year contract with American Lighting & Signalization in October, at one point reaching 12,000 complaints, said Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams during a recent budget hearing.

As the city looked to negotiate a new deal, the department relied on an emergency maintenance contractor and in-house technicians, causing the backlog to build alongside safety concerns — for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, but also from residents fearful of broken lights fostering crime in their neighborhoods.

The department is now carrying roughly 300 open requests for streetlight repairs at any given time, said Williams. That’s thanks to the overtime pay, which is in line with what the department typically pays out for streetlight repair work over the course of four months. But Streets also backfilled positions left vacant by attrition to help complete repairs and close-out work orders part of the backlog, which Jacobs said typically sits between 200 and 500 complaints.

Additionally, ALS shifted some of its technicians to focus on repairs.

“Would we have spent the overtime if the contract had not lapsed? No. But it was necessary to do. We were fortunate that we were able to work out with the union a shift schedule, so we shifted our crews from day work to night work and so the amount of overtime was minimal,” said Montanez.

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