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Broken streetlight complaints in Philly triple due to botched city contract

Since July, the average number of complaints about broken street lights has ballooned from about 900 a month to 3000.

Street light outages on the 2400 block of S. 57th Street in Southwest Philadelphia on November 24.
Street light outages on the 2400 block of S. 57th Street in Southwest Philadelphia on November 24.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Denise Wilson doesn’t see much crime on her block — but then again, she can’t see much of anything after dark.

Dozens of streetlights in her lower Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood have reportedly been out for weeks on end. Come nightfall, the dull, yellow glow of the corner bodega’s marquee sign is the brightest light on her street, in the city’s Crescentville section.

“It’s like being inside a dark tunnel,” said Wilson, 48. “Daylight saving time has only made it worse.”

Wilson’s block isn’t an outlier. The streets of Philadelphia are darker than they’ve been in years. City officials allowed a light-maintenance contract to lapse back in June and took more than three months to negotiate a new deal — with the same contractor, at more than triple the price.

Since then, reports of extinguished streetlights have more than tripled, according to an Inquirer analysis of the city’s 311 complaint data. Prior to this year, the city received about 900 complaints a month on average from residents over streetlight outages. But since July, that number has ballooned, averaging about 3,000 per month, including duplicate reports of outages.

Fewer complaints are being resolved, too. Today, Philadelphia has the largest backlog of broken lights since the city began tracking the issue in 2014. For the first time, outages are among the top two most common 311 complaints in the city — surpassing more common nuisances like illegal dumping, graffiti, or trash pickup delays. (Abandoned cars still top the list of grievances.)

On blocks like Wilson’s, the impact of months of deferred streetlight maintenance is clearly visible — and it may be more than just a nuisance.

Wilson said one of her neighbors was robbed while walking home at night in early November, and it was so dark the woman couldn’t even describe her mugger.

Then, on the evening of Nov. 20, a gunman fatally shot 32-year-old Jessica Covington and her unborn child as she got out of her car just steps from Wilson’s home. The District Attorney’s Office said police investigators recovered video surveillance footage, but numerous broken streetlights left the footage “extremely” dark.

Police have not yet made an arrest.

The city should have known about this problem, Wilson said. Data from 311 calls show residents have logged nearly 30 complaints this year about broken lights within a two-block radius of where Covington was killed. Few have been fixed.

“We’ve been complaining for months,” Wilson said. “The lights are out and it makes it so dangerous.”

The city’s Streets Department is responsible for maintaining more than 148,000 streetlamps.

The backlog dates to July, shortly after the expiration of a city contract with a maintenance company hired to fix broken streetlamps, known as American Lighting & Signalization (ALS). Streets Department spokesperson Crystal Jacobs said the department didn’t begin seeking a replacement contract until August, and it took until mid-October to finalize a deal, relying on a few in-house technicians and an emergency maintenance contractor for four months.

The Streets Department said negotiations were delayed because the department “was hoping to negotiate a better rate based on the terms of the requirements contract,” Jacobs said.

Despite the months-long wait, the vendor hasn’t changed. ALS won the new one-year contract to continue servicing streetlamps — rising from $2 million to more than $6.5 million. Jacobs said that was the lowest bid, which the city has to accept by law, and blamed labor shortages and wage rates.

ALS could not be reached for comment.

The delay has yielded more than 12,700 open service requests for outages, according to 311. The Streets Department — which says it can fix about 2,000 lights per month with an active contractor — could not provide a timeline on how long it would take to catch up on repairs.

“Crews continue to chip away at the current backlog while addressing calls that are coming in,” Jacobs said.

The backlog has also piled up at a time when the Streets Department is modernizing its entire light grid.

In 2019, the city vowed to replace the existing high-pressure sodium bulbs with modern LED lights — a long-overdue infrastructural upgrade that would generate more ambient light with less power. The timeline was pegged at two to three years, but to date, the department says it has installed only about 12,000 out of a proposed 100,000 LED lights.

Meanwhile, the mounting outages have left many residents, like Wilson, saying they feel more fearful of crime, while pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers say the dimness makes the roadways less safe at night.

It’s hard to tell how far-reaching the impact of streetlight outages has been on crime in Philadelphia. But Aaron Chalfin, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that lighting has long affected criminal behavior in both obvious and surprising ways.

Chalfin conducted a study of Chicago’s light grid and found that crime did not necessarily increase on blocks experiencing multiple light outages — but rather, adjacent streets saw a spike.

The reason: People were more likely to avoid blocks with broken lights.

“It’s evidence that crime is sensitive to lighting,” Chalfin said. “Light will shift human activity and shift crime.”

But some parts of the city have been living in the dark ages more than others.

Data show lower Northeast Philadelphia and South Philly, both dense areas, had the highest concentration of reports of extinguished bulbs, with thousands of open complaints, while more sparsely populated areas like Chestnut Hill had fewer than a hundred.

Elected officials have taken notice. In September, State Rep. Chris Rabb, who represents parts of Northwest Philadelphia, tweeted a complaint about a light near his home that had been out for about four weeks. “You [folks] usually fix these lights within a day or two!” he tweeted at the Streets Department.

City Council’s district offices have also been flooded with constituent service calls about the ongoing delays to light repairs. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s district in West Philadelphia has been hard hit by the outages — with more than 800 open complaints about broken lights pending. Her office alone filed 28 reports of busted lights to 311 since July.

“I am frustrated by the lack of action from the city,” Gauthier said.

Advocates for pedestrians and bicyclists also bemoan the delays, noting that dimly lit streets create unsafe conditions for everyone on the streets at night.

James Gitto, president of the West Passyunk Neighbors Association and board member of 5th Square, the urbanist political action committee, lives in a hard-hit section of South Philadelphia — which has the most reported outages of any zip code and the second-highest rate per resident.

The outages are especially noticeable while walking or on a bicycle.

“People drive without headlights and you can’t see the cars coming,” Gitto said. “You also never know if there’s a giant hole in the road.”

Jacobs, the Streets Department official, said there is no prioritization process for certain areas or neighborhoods. Requests through 311 are assigned to technicians, who then determine the route to make repairs, Jacobs said.

Sometimes, however, repairs seem to happen quicker when the problem is brought to light.

Last week, a bright lamp shone down for the first time in months on the corner near where Jessica Covington was slain in Crescentville, illuminating a shrine with stuffed animals and flowers.

The Streets Department confirmed that technicians had arrived to fix the light above the crime scene the day after news broke of the slaying.

But Wilson, the neighbor, says the city fixed only one of several outed bulbs on the dusky block.

“The others,” Wilson said, “are still out.”