by Joe Narkin
(Plain Press, April 2011) If a streetlight malfunctioned on the Near West Side of Cleveland over the past couple of years, chances are that Tremont community activist Henry Senyak discovered it through a regular inspection process and reported it to Cleveland Public Power (CPP). After making a report, Senyak also monitored each broken streetlight until it was fixed.
This has taken countless hours of Senyak’s time as a volunteer and he has provided this service without reimbursement for expenses in order to make a point to CPP and other city officials that regular inspections and due diligence in making timely repairs will save the City of Cleveland money, improve quality of life, and enhance public safety.
Senyak did not keep track of how much time he spent over the last year in monitoring streetlights, but the time was considerable by any measure. During 2010, Senyak reported 2900 defective streetlights to the CPP automated repair system and he estimates that each call took him approximately 3 minutes to complete.
Thus, Senyak spent the equivalent of 145 hours (the equivalent of 3.5 full-time work weeks) making repair calls. This does not include the time spent driving through neighborhoods to look for new outages and following up to assure that repairs have been completed or the time that it takes him to maintain voluminous documentation. The monthly report maintained by Senyak generally comes to 150 pages of streetlight data.
The question that may be asked is, “Why is Senyak doing this?” As a member of the Public Safety Committee of Tremont West Community Development Corporation (TWCDC), Senyak is convinced that quality of life and public safety go hand in hand with adequate street lighting, especially in out of the way areas of the urban environment. “Unlit alleyways and underpasses are crimes waiting to happen,” said Senyak.
A recent study, Improved Streetlighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that adequate street lighting can produce a 21% decrease in crime. And, residents of the Near West Side of Cleveland seem to have an intuitive, common sense understanding of other findings of the report.
“Good lighting encourages pedestrian traffic and allows residents to put ‘eyes on the street;’ without lighting, you turn the streets over to criminals, and create fear among residents of venturing outdoors,” said Ohio City resident Bill Merriman in an email to the Plain Press.
“A well lit street is inviting; a poorly lit street is ominous,” wrote Tremont resident Sandy Smith in an email. “Well lit streets give the impression that people are paying attention and watching out for crime and each other,’ she wrote.
“Streetlights are imperative to safety and can reduce crimes against residents as well as prevent thefts and vandalism,” said Ward 14 resident and community activist Rebecca Kempton. “The illumination from the lights also helps motorists see pedestrians and other vehicles,” she said.
Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman cites the September mugging of an student intern in a dark parking lot of the May Dugan Center as a case where a lack of lighting produced a climate conducive to criminal activity, although the problem in this case was inadequate protective lighting of a city-owned building, rather that a problem with streetlights. CPP has remedied the problem at the May Dugan Center and has created a much safer environment, according to Cimperman.
Senyak believes that the service that he provides is a necessity by default since CPP does not have the resources to conduct regular inspections on their own. And, West Side residents appear to agree.
“CPP does not have any active units to seek out bad street fixtures; it is 100% left up to the residents,” said Kempton. “It is a tough time for everybody, including CPP, but there should be some mechanism on their part to monitor the situation,” she said.
While the involvement of private citizen Senyak in the affairs of CPP sometimes resulted in tensions, hard feelings, and misunderstandings, the joint efforts of Senyak and CPP appear to have resulted in a significant improvement in street lighting in the areas covered by Senyak on the West Side of Cleveland.
During a February inspection drive with the Plain Press, Senyak pointed out that there were 15 defective streetlights on a 3-mile stretch of Lorain Avenue between West 25th Street and West Boulevard. Between West Boulevard and West 117th on Lorain Avenue a much smaller one mile stretch of Lorain Avenue that Senyak did nor cover, there were 10 lights out.
A drive through downtown and the near east side of Cleveland revealed that, by comparison, street lighting in the area covered by Senyak on the west side was dramatically better. But the downtown area is a special circumstance during the dead of winter because of accumulations of plowed snow along lampposts, according to Jim Ferguson, Chief of the Bureau of Street Lighting with CPP.
“Downtown presents an acceptable situation that we have to live with,” said Ferguson, indicating that it is sound strategy to have repair crews repair a greater number of fixtures that are readily accessible rather that to tie up crews shoveling snow.
In addition to experiencing the impact of a strained economy, CPP purchased 18,170 streetlights from CEI for $4 million in 2008 with the goal of providing services under a unified umbrella and realizing cost efficiencies. This increased the number of streetlights under CPP control from 45,858 to 64,028, an increase of nearly 40% that caused some growing pains from which CPP is beginning to recover, said Ferguson. CPP spends approximately $12 million per year in street lighting.
Senyak recognizes and appreciates both the challenges encountered and the improving effectiveness of CPP. He remains concerned, however, about the follow-up response to streetlights that have been reported as fixed by CCP, but continue to malfunction. During a three-week period in February, Senyak found, during his re-inspection process, that 22% of the 252 streetlights reported as fixed were still not working.
“I think that 4 out of 5 (80%) is the best case scenario that we can look for in repairing our streetlights given our aging infrastructure,” said Senyak. While uncertain of the actual failure to fix rate, Ferguson does not believe that it is as significant as reported by Senyak, but agrees that the age of the lighting system, which uses numerous types of fixture, some of which are obsolete, presents a challenge.
Crews assigned to night shifts are tasked with replacing bulbs, sensors, and fuses, while day crews are assigned to more difficult repairs such as fixture replacement and rewiring. In many cases, the fixed light will subsequently fail if undetected corrosion and water infiltration causes the fuse to short circuit. Such problems are especially severe in the case of streetlights over bridges and under freeway overpasses, according to Ferguson.
Having completed his two-year demonstration project as a volunteer, Senyak was engaged, as of March 1, as a contractor by the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation (under funding through the office of Councilman Cimperman) to continue monitoring streetlights in the parts of Ward 3 that are west of the Cuyahoga River. Senyak has indicated a willingness to continue to monitor other areas on the West Side of Cleveland should resources be allocated by other council members or public officials.
On March 19, the City of Cleveland announced a $200,000 pilot program to install LED (Light-Emitting Diode) streetlights from various manufacturers at test locations in order to explore the feasibility of establishing an LED street lighting system citywide. LED streetlights are believed to be more energy efficient and durable than the mercury vapor and high-pressure sodium systems currently in place.
“Our system works and new technology is coming; if you just bear with us, we will take you into the future,” said Ferguson.
For the present, however, in those areas no longer monitored by Senyak, he hopes that residents and business owners will utilize CPP’s streetlight repair notification system in order to address defective streetlights as they fail and to avoid a backlog of repair problems.
Defective streetlights can be reported to Cleveland Public Power online at www.cpp.org/streetoutage.html or by telephone at (216) 621-5485.