San Diego’s 6,000 broken streetlights prompt questions of ‘whether the city is delivering.’ Here’s how it plans to fix them
Thousands more repairs will be contracted out, outdated circuits are getting replaced, and temporary solar lights are being installed in high-crime areas
San Diego is accelerating city efforts to shrink a growing backlog of more than 6,100 broken streetlights by contracting out thousands more repairs, using federal grants to replace outdated circuits and boosting efficiency with a new algorithm.
The campaign also includes efforts to reduce outages, such as tamper-resistant hand hole covers, and to boost safety, such as installing temporary solar lights in areas where outages have been accompanied by a rise in crime.
A key element of the campaign is the city’s plan for cumulative pay raises of 23 percent for city-employed streetlight repair workers over the next three years as part of a new labor contract. A 40 percent vacancy rate last year has shrunk to less than 10 percent.
The city’s tentative new contracts with two unions would raise employees’ pay by 22.8 percent by July 2025, in an effort to bring their pay in line with their counterparts at other agencies.
City officials say the goal of the campaign is to dramatically reduce the average time it takes to address a streetlight complaint, from about eight months to just three days.
Without the campaign, city officials say the problem will only get worse. That’s because the city typically gets about 7,000 streetlight complaints per year and can complete only about 5,000 repairs.
“The problem is the incoming caseload continues to outpace the production rate,” said Juan Aguirre, assistant deputy director of the Transportation Department. “Based on the current trend, our in-house crews will never catch up.”
That’s why the city says contracting out is so crucial. This spring, the labor union representing streetlight workers agreed to allow the city to use private contractors to repair 600 streetlights in the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village.
The work — which is expected to cost about $400,000, or roughly $700 per streetlight — has been so successful that city officials plan to spend another $2.3 million on contractors during the new fiscal year that began this month.
The geographic areas of the city that will benefit from the new wave of outsourced repairs haven’t been chosen yet, officials said.
They will likely be based partly on a special algorithm created last year by the city’s Performance and Analytics Department to streamline repairs, make them more efficient and prioritize those expected to boost safety the most.
Fundamentally, the algorithm shifts repairs away from an “oldest-case-first” model to a geographical location-based priority model that allows crews to attack clusters of key outages more efficiently.
The algorithm, which remains a work in progress, also weighs factors such as crime rates, historic service levels, proximity to schools and parks and frequency of lawsuits in an area.
The city says it also removes politics and subjectivity from decisions about which streetlight repairs to tackle first.
Another element of the new campaign is replacing about 2,000 of the city’s 57,000 streetlights that use outdated series circuits, which can make all the lights go dark if just one in the series has a problem.
San Diego got a $3.5 million federal grant this spring for replacement wiring for roughly 200 lights — 30 in Logan Heights and 170 in Pacific Beach and Point Loma.
The city is spending a $3.5 million grant to replace old wiring in some of those streetlights, and it is contracting with independent electricians to boost staffing.
The city spent another $1 million on series circuit replacements in the fiscal year that ended last month. They are taking place in parts of Sunset Cliffs and Kensington.
But such efforts can prompt backlash in areas where residents consider antique streetlights a crucial part of neighborhood ambience. Some Kensington residents have fought a city plan to replace their streetlights, which date back to 1926, with more modern fixtures that look similar and have updated circuits.
The city of San Diego plans to replace the neighborhood’s 96-year-old lights because of their lead-based paint and unreliable series circuitry.
Reducing the number of outages is another key element of the campaign.
Crews have installed 50 tamper-resistant hand hole covers and locks to make it harder for vandals to break into light poles and damage or remove wiring and other equipment. Another 50 hand hole covers have been ordered.
The city has also installed 35 of the 50 temporary solar light fixtures it bought as stopgap measures for areas with large outages, high crime rates or repairs that face delays because the problems are unusually complex.
Streetlights in many of San Diego’s older neighborhoods were installed in the 1950s and 1960s, making them outdated and leaving city officials without detailed records about how some operate.
Other problems facing the city’s streetlights include damaged wiring, blown-out bulbs, outdated conductors, infestations by rodents and damage caused by people tapping into electrical grids and thieves stealing copper wires.
Outages are often so complex that city officials say they must conduct a minor investigation to determine the best way to fix each one.
Those problems helped create a backlog of repairs that grew significantly during the pandemic.
City officials say that’s partly because many city streetlight workers left their jobs during the pandemic, and partly because reports of streetlight problems increased with people spending more time at home and on neighborhood walks.
Streetlights are such high-visibility assets that broken ones significantly impact the image of a neighborhood and the city overall, City Councilmember Kent Lee said last month.
“It becomes indicative of the perception of whether the city is delivering on its broader promises,” Lee said.
Councilmember Joe LaCava, who represents Pacific Beach, said he gets more complaints about broken streetlights than any other type of problem.
“We’ve done such a great job with potholes that streetlights now have risen to the top of the issues that constituents complain about,” LaCava said.