Politics & Government

‘Our city is dark.’ What Fort Worth is doing to illuminate neighborhoods

Charles Hamilton plans his day around the sun.

The Stop Six resident has no problem getting around his part of the neighborhood in his wheelchair, but he doesn’t like to be on the move during the heat of the day. And he can’t leave his home at dusk and risk coming back in the dark.

“If I don’t have money for the bus, I’ll just take off,” he said. “But it prevents me from going too far from where I live because of the lighting.”

Streetlights are a safety issue, Hamilton said, but one that has less to do with discouraging crime. The lack of lighting in Stop Six makes it hard for him to see and for others to see him.

Parts of Stop Six received new streetlights, sidewalks and other features through targeted money the city devoted to the neighborhood in 2017. But some parts of it are still too dark, Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s problem isn’t an isolated one. Many Fort Worth neighborhoods, especially older ones, have poor street lighting. Some areas have many streetlights, but mature trees block the light from reaching the street and sidewalks. In other areas the lights are just out — victims of age, weather or copper thieves.

“Our city is dark,” lamented Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray during a meeting earlier this year.

Excluding streetlight work done during road repairs, bond projects or new lights added by developers, the city devoted less than $5 million to streetlights in the 2020 budget. That’s up about $500,000 from previous years. It’s enough to cover maintenance on 10,100 lights and covert about 4,000 existing ones to more efficient LED bulbs. But the city has more than 63,000 streetlights, a number that grows with each new subdivision.

Following recommendations from the Race and Culture Task Force, the money is expected to be spent equitably with a focus on neighborhoods with a high population of minority and low-income residents.

The city relies on complaints to know where lights are out. The backlog of work can get lengthy.

Residents can report bad lights by calling 817-392-1234 or using the MyFW app, which can be used to report a variety of issues. The complaint is put in a queue with other work orders. Recently the app showed more than 30 open complaints for streetlights that weren’t working over the past week. From Jan. 1 through mid-September, the city opened nearly 9,000 work orders for streetlight repairs. More than 1,600 remained open as of Sept. 18.

In United Riverside, residents have been asking for lighting improvements for about two years, said neighborhood president Donald Marshall.

“This is a walking neighborhood, so it’s a concern,” he said.

On a recent evening he slowly drove around the neighborhood, pointing out streets he said were too dark. In some places it was obvious new LED lights had been installed, but in others, older light bulbs cast a dim yellow glow. Even where new lights were installed, some couldn’t penetrate dense foliage, leaving sidewalks and streets in the shadows.

South Judkins Street, for instance, has several lights, but between Judkins and South Retta Street, Fisher Street is dark. The street is a common dumping ground, Marshall said, because of vacant lots and a lack of light.

Marshall is also concerned about lighting around churches and increased development in the neighborhood. He worries those driving around United Riverside may not see pedestrians as they leave church or a construction site.

He estimated more than two dozen lights were out or not properly lighting the street. Many people have turned to adding additional lights to their homes and businesses.

“If it wasn’t for those lights, it’d be even darker,” Marshall said.

Gray, who also lives in United Riverside, said she often turns on several outside lights when she walks outside in the early morning to grab the newspaper or water plants. Her corner lot has a nearby streetlight, but it doesn’t provide adequate light for her yard.

Well lit neighborhoods are healthier, she said.

“People stay outside longer. People walk, meet their neighbors,” she said. “It gives them a sense of security and community.”

Glencrest Civic League residents went to the city in October 2017 with a request to fix or add about 10 streetlights, resident Beatrice Thomas said. With the exception of two locations, the city has replaced all the lights in question. Those two spots, though, are by an elementary school and a small park, she said.

“I’m fairly satisfied,” she said.

Lights are added to the city’s inventory of roughly 63,500 almost daily, public works director William Johnson said. Newer neighborhoods have newer lights, which are typically LED rather than the older high pressure sodium. The city plans to switch all lights to LED bulbs, which are brighter and last longer.

The city prioritizes lighting projects based on the condition of the lights and the energy savings from converting to LED. It will determine future projects based on equity, equipment age and pedestrian volume. Like with its effort to tackle sidewalk needs, the city will gather significant public input as streetlight projects are chosen, he said.

In Stop Six, Hamilton, who is the neighborhood president, said he wondered if new development overshadowed the needs in the city’s old neighborhoods.

“When I was growing up over here, it was known as the country,” he said. describing a time when many residents lacked indoor lighting even as other parts of the city modernized. “Some of these areas are just like it was then — no lights.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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