Arterial streetlights: budget cuts, then wire thieves
Between last year's budget cuts and this year's criminals, a number of non-residential streets in Colorado Springs - the Westside being no exception - are darker this year.
City Traffic Engineering shut off 8,000 streetlights last year to save over $1 million on the budget. The announced policy was to target lights that had low energy efficiency or were in areas already well-lit (for example, near a parking lot).
With a healthier budget this year, City Council agreed to turn residential streetlights back on. However, the city governing body set no policy for lights on “arterials” (higher-traffic thoroughfares, such as Highway 24, Colorado Avenue, Centennial Boulevard, Eighth Street and Fillmore Street).
As a result, “Arterial lights that were turned off in 2010 are still off and will remain so until council (or the new mayor) directs otherwise,” City Traffic Engineer Dave Krauth said in a recent e-mail exchange.
Criminals have caused greater dimming, by breaking into streetlight housings and stealing the copper wire inside, most likely with the goal of selling the stuff to metal dealers.
Krauth estimated the city's wire-replacement cost at $140,000 already in 2011.
He said Westside Highway 24 streetlights have been burglarized twice this year, as shown by some lengthy illumination gaps between 8th and 31st streets. “The lights on 24 are off because the wire was stolen again,” Krauth emphasized in late March. “We already replaced it once but thieves stole it in less than a month... This area is one of over 200 areas (strings of lights) throughout the city that vandals have hit.”
According to Krauth, the thieves typically break into the bases of light poles, wrap a chain around the wires and drive off. “They will also cut wires in each pole base then just pull them with a vehicle or a few people (by hand),” he said. “They do this predominantly under the cover of darkness and have even gone to the trouble of creating logos for the side of their trucks so they 'look like' CSU [Colorado Springs Utilities] field vehicles.”
Despite changes in installation procedures so that wires no longer go directly from one pole to the other, “apparently the thieves were watching the crews on Highway 24 and circumvented the 'deterrents,'” Krauth said.
Other methods to discourage thefts are being mulled, but all would mean greater expense. One possibility is to switch to aluminum wire, which has lower resale value than copper. However, aluminum “does not last as long as copper and would ultimately raise our maintenance costs,' Krauth said.
In addition to Highway 24, other streetlight-vandalized Westside arterials include 8th and 21st streets. Also, the segment of I-25 from Bijou to Cimarron has been hit, Krauth said.
Ironically, it was just seven years ago that Colorado Springs Utilities expanded its lighting capabilities along Highway 24, installing 130 light poles between Eighth Street and the city's western limits at a cost of $265,000. Before that, the highway had no streetlights except at its intersections. The project resulted in the highway being “lit to the standard of the city for a street that size,” a Utilities administrator told the Pioneer in February 2004.
Westside Pioneer article