Darker Tosa streets save money, but generate complaints

City still looking at streetlight options

April 27, 2011

Wauwatosa's experiment in turning on streetlights in some neighborhoods for fewer hours has generated complaints from 82 residents in the last eight months, but the money-saving maneuver is deemed necessary - at least in some form - to keep the city within budget.

A discussion of the controversial measure resulted in no action from the Traffic and Safety Committee on Tuesday, but options for moving forward were floated. The issue likely will be back before the panel in two weeks.

The city could expand the program to more neighborhoods, and it could turn the lights on 15 minutes after sunset and 15 minutes before sunrise, rather than a full half hour. The financial savings would be less, but increasing the number of areas participating could balance that out, city staff members said.

Installing LED lights could reduce energy consumption by 30 to 60 percent, but there is a significant upfront charge for retrofitting equipment - payback would take more than 50 years to realize, Porter said.

He suggested that by dovetailing lighting upgrades with street reconstruction projects, the city could pay the "upcharge" of installing a more efficient streetlight vs. the traditional fixtures more practically.

Darkness means dollars

The city in August installed time clocks in six of the city's 47 substations that control circuits of streetlights. Those clocks allow the city to turn lights on and off based on the time, rather than based on ambient light, as is standard practice, said Bill Porter, public works director.

Areas controlled by the clocks now turn streetlights on a 30 minutes after sunset and turn them off 30 minutes before sunrise. Those lights also shut off from 3 to 4 a.m.

Neighborhoods that experience the heaviest streetlight use were the first chosen to participate in the experiment, Porter said. Time clocks were added to four more substations in September, followed by six more in February.

Ending the experiment and turning on the lights all night long would cause the city to go over budget in 2011, he said.

Continuing the modified streetlight times as they are should save the city between $15,000 and $30,000 this year, he said.

That might not seem like big money, but tight budgets and reduced state aid are forcing the city to look at cutting costs from all departments and services.

"Relative to the city budget, it's a very small savings," said Alderman Dennis McBride, who headed up the committee meeting. "We're hoping it will all add up to very big savings."

We Energies raised streetlight energy costs 1 percent this year and the city only has about two months of data to consult, so it is hard to determine exactly how much money the city has saved.

To end 2011 within the adopted budget, Tosa has to constrain costs by 7.72 percent over last year. At this point, it looks like the city will spend about 8.6 percent less.

Time for a community chat?

The Police Department has not reported an uptick in crime in the impacted areas, Porter said. However, at the behest of residents and businesses along North Avenue, the duration lights are off was scaled back there. However, this is Wauwatosa's highest energy-consumption circuit.

McBride acknowledged that some people don't want to see their streetlights go dark for any stretch of the night. If that's the case, the savings have to be found elsewhere, so it's getting time to have a community discussion about what service reductions taxpayers would find less objectionable, he said.

By the numbers


streetlights owned by the city


substations that control circuits of streetlights throughout the city


complaints from residents about reduced streetlight hours since August


percent fewer dollars spent this year so far to power streetlights


lighting outages attended to by city crews annually


days, maximum, to get lighting outages back in service


streetlight poles that get knocked down in an average year


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