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City to boost lighting for West Campus

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 by Jack Craver

In response to concerns about student safety, the city plans to increase spending to repair and upgrade street lights in the West Campus neighborhood.

In a memo released last week, City Manager Spencer Cronk outlined short-term, mid-term and long-term plans to increase lighting in the neighborhood, which has experienced major population growth in recent years, largely due to a boom in student apartment housing.

The city “agrees in principle” with a report published in July by Stanley Consultants, which the city hired to conduct an audit of lighting in the area. The firm’s report found that roughly 20 percent of the neighborhood’s 1,128 lights were nonfunctioning or obstructed by tree branches.

In addition to fixing the deficient lights, Stanley’s report recommended the city transition from high-pressure sodium lighting to LED lighting. Currently only 23 of the neighborhood’s lights are LED.

“LED lights have different characteristics than their HPS counterparts and will make a difference in the amount and quality of light in the West Campus area,” the report noted.

Finally, the report said that the city’s streetlights, which are installed and maintained by Austin Energy, are geared toward lighting the roadway for cars, rather than illuminating sidewalks for pedestrians. It suggested that the city craft a “comprehensive lighting master plan to include roadway and pedestrian lighting strategies to create a baseline for lighting” in the future.

In the short term, says Cronk, the city will deal with the nonfunctioning and obstructed lights. He envisions the necessary replacements and tree trimmings to be done by this summer.

Some of the other goals will take much longer to achieve. It will take at least five years to add the 228 new lights that the consultants recommended. The pace is dictated by staff constraints; there are currently 11 Austin Energy employees dedicated to installing and repairing streetlights.

“This would be done in a phased approach, prioritizing improvements at locations based on the degree of lighting deficiencies identified in the study, followed by locations with crime and crash history, and locations identified by the community as part of this study’s community outreach efforts,” the memo explains.

City staff recently estimated that adding the new lights will likely cost $1.7 million to $2.3 million.

The city has some funding available for upgrading fixtures to LED lights, but it will “seek an accelerated relamping schedule for all streets in West Campus.”

While Cronk’s memo suggests that the city would like to put in place a more pedestrian-focused lighting approach, it does not offer any specifics on how that could occur. The memo simply recommends that the city determine “if there are any pedestrian-focused lighting solutions that can be implemented by the Transportation Department in this area in conjunction with Austin Energy.”

The issue is hardly unique to West Campus, even if the outcry in the neighborhood has been louder. In the long term, the memo recommends a citywide study “to identify a holistic and sustainable strategy to improve lighting throughout Austin.” Funding for that study will be proposed in the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget.

Among other things, the study will examine the potential role of public-private partnerships to add lighting.

Photo by bigbirdz [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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