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Everything you wanted to know about D.C.’s streetlamps

If media attention is any measure, the streetlight is the neglected stepchild of the city’s public works. Georgetown’s 32 manhole explosions are continual fodder for TV news. The fact that the District and its suburbs are clotted by the third-worst traffic congestion in the nation has been well-documented, too, as has the estimate that 266 of the city’s 1,100 miles of road will be under repair this year.

Yet one rarely hears a peep about the District’s 67,000 streetlights—whether they’re working or, as is often the case, busted.

According to the city, about 3 percent of the District’s bulbs are out at any given time, requiring $500,000 per month in repairs. In April 2001, the District received 1,444 streetlight complaints to its hotline (727-1000), which is about average. The city resolved all but 54 of the complaints. The District now gives callers service-request tracking numbers, which residents can use to follow up on complaints and monitor when services are delivered.

During the next several years, the city will replace roughly 30,000 of these lamps with new fixtures that take high-pressure sodium bulbs. The new bulbs will generate the same brightness using an average of 40 percent less electricity. They will also direct their orange-tinted light at the ground, rather than scatter it into nearby houses, as the current models do. According to Wil DerMinassian, chief traffic engineer for the District’s Division of Transportation, about 1,300 of the fixtures will be converted, at a cost of $2,300 each, this year.

Rusting bases make many streetlights vulnerable to toppling over. Reckless drivers and “acts of God” knock down about 400 streetlights each year. The District strives to repair knocked-down streetlights within five days, but repairs currently can take up to a year to complete. Replacement poles cost $7,000 each, and new concrete foundations for the damaged bases add another $3,000 to the bill.

The streetlight pictured here is the District’s most common model. Shaped like a cobra head, its lamp sports a fixture that’s made to burn 295-watt incandescent bulbs.

A common problem with the city’s streetlights is something that’s more often associated with strings of cheap Christmas lights. Each streetlamp is connected, in a series, with other lights on the block. If just one goes out, the circuit breaks and the entire block is thrown into darkness. Series-circuit lights are most common in Ward 3 and near the U.S. Capitol building. Replacing streetlights in such a circuit costs more than $16,000 per unit.

How many city workers does it take to screw in a streetlight bulb? Two: one to install the bulb and the other to monitor the ladder for safety. More crew members are needed to replace an entire fixture. PEPCO is the District’s leading contractor for such maintenance.

Within the streetlight’s base, electrical currents are transformed into “juice” for the bulbs. Some District troublemakers are opening these bases like clamshells, so they can store illicit items inside. Many of these bases are now being welded shut, becoming more difficult to open when repairs are needed later. CP