San Diego mayor says 272 days in the dark is too long, vows to speed streetlight repairs

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announces the terms of the Invitation To Bid on the city's electric and gas franchise agreements.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announces the terms of the Invitation To Bid on the city’s electric and gas franchise agreements.
(Rob Nikolewski/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gloria says the average of 272 days to repair street lights is unacceptable


San Diego is launching a new campaign to boost neighborhood and traffic safety by accelerating repairs to city streetlights, which now get fixed an average of 272 days after a problem gets reported.

Mayor Todd Gloria said the city will use a new formula to more effectively prioritize the outages by ranking them based on criteria like proximity to a school, nearby traffic congestion and crime rates in the area.

The formula also will consider how long ago the outage was reported, whether the neighborhood has been historically underfunded and whether there is a cluster of outages that can be handled together.

Gloria said better efficiency is essentially San Diego’s only option as it deals with severe staff shortages coupled with decaying infrastructure built mostly in the 1950s and 1960s.

Seven of the city’s 18 streetlight engineer positions are vacant, mirroring staffing shortages in hundreds of other key city positions.

And the city’s infrastructure is not only outdated, but officials also lack detailed records about how some city streetlights operate.

Streetlight outages differ significantly from graffiti scrawls, potholes and illegally parked cars, where how to fix the problem is almost always obvious.

“It was pretty surprising to me, not only the long delays there are in repairing streetlights, but how complicated this process can be,” Gloria said Thursday. “I wish it was just swapping out a light bulb. It’s a lot more complex than that.”

Problems include damaged wiring, blown-out bulbs, outdated conductors, infestations by rodents, homeless people tapping into electrical grids, thieves stealing copper wires and photocells failing to turn lights on and off.

In addition, many streetlight systems across the city are built on series circuits that make all the lights go dark if just one in the series has a problem.

Outages are so complex that city officials must conduct a “minor investigation” to determine the best way to fix each one, Gloria said.

“We can’t just throw our hands up and act like this is acceptable,” the mayor said. “We have to roll our sleeves up and get to work, and that’s what we have been doing.”

Gloria asked his performance and analytics team to come up with an algorithm to help crews better prioritize outages in the sprawling city’s vast network of more than 57,000 streetlights.

Kirby Brady, the city’s chief innovation officer, helped design the algorithm, which gives each streetlight work order a score. She also helped create an application that shows clusters of key outages on maps that crews now receive for each neighborhood.

This approach gives the crews a spatial distribution of repairs and helps them efficiently tackle low-priority jobs that happen to be near high-priority clusters.

Brady said the new approach could be used to accelerate city efforts on other quality-of-life issues Gloria says deserve more focus.

They include pothole repairs, missed trash pick-ups, traffic signal repairs, sidewalk problems, weed abatement, tree maintenance and removal of abandoned cars.

Goal is to remove cars in six days rather than several weeks, city officials say

Jorge Riveros, the city’s transportation director, said the new algorithm also removes politics and subjectivity from decisions about which streetlight repairs to tackle first.

Riveros said the city hopes to fill the vacant streetlight crew positions. He noted that in addition to the seven vacancies, there are also times when workers are injured or out sick.