The Ann Arbor City Council approved a $143,296 contract with OHM Advisors — an architectural firm based in Livonia — earlier last week to conduct a complete inspection of the city's streetlights, including prioritization of repairs and cost estimates. Such an inspection occurs at least once every 10 years, according to City Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5).
Smith said the inspection is regular, but noted it is coming after city employees noticed the bottoms of lamp posts were "rusted out" while looking into replacing lights in the Kerrytown neighborhood of Ann Arbor.
Last October, Huron High School student Qi-Xuan "Justin" Tang, a 16-year-old, was struck by a car and killed while crossing a poorly-lit crosswalk on Fuller Road while on his way to school. Since that accident, more streetlights have been installed near the high school, and a school zone has been established, reducing the speed limit from 40 to 25 mph during hours of heavy student traffic.
There still is no general cost estimate, but Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) noted “it will be expensive.”
"I think that's part of it, you know, you can't budget for what you don't know, so getting that baseline is critical," she said. "Because we're always going to have to make decisions that involve tradeoffs, and this gives us –– you can't make the decisions without having that information."
Money is tight right now in city government; in an earlier City Council planning session, Tom Crawford, the Chief Financial Officer for the city, said he expected budget deficits of $318,000 in fiscal year 2017-18, starting in July 2017, and $992,000 in fiscal year 2018-19. According to Smith, Crawford also made recommendations during the last two budget cycles that the city set aside $700,000 annually to go toward the inspection and repair of streetlights, but that the full recommendation was not completed. Neither Smith nor City Administrator Howard Lazarus were sure how much was actually set aside.
"I know that the CFO Tom Crawford has made recommendations during the last two budget cycles that we set aside $700,000 annually to go into that, but that was not done in the last two-year cycle," he said. "There was some money set aside, but not the full recommendation."
However, City Council is hopeful the University of Michigan will shoulder some of the costs in relevant areas. Councilmember Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3), who graduated from the University in 2015, said on Friday the issue of street lighting was important for the University to consider from a campus safety perspective.
“I think the University has an opportunity not only to meet a student demand and student need but also be a leader in promoting campus safety in the nation as well as helping the city accomplish those same goals from a financial perspective,” he said.
The issue of street lighting has been on the student government's agenda for some time. Immediately after City Council lifted a moratorium on new streetlights in the city in February 2015, Central Student Government introduced a plan for new lights in the areas of Hill Street, Oxford Road and Geddes Road. The plan, however, never made it off the ground. Cooper Charlton, the president of CSG at the time, said budgetary constraints and a lack of cooperation with the city were responsible for the plan's failure.
Grand, who was also a graduate student at the University and is currently an employee at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, agreed on the University's potential to help the city, citing the city's need.
"We have not identified at this point a significant source of funding for streetlights that's consistent, and that's part of the issue," she said. "So every year we're kind of tick and tack adding on funding in our budget amendments for streetlights, and that's clearly not how we want to go forward.
Grand also added the University has a direct interest in improving the lighting of certain areas on or near campus.
“We don't ever want to turn down funding from the University," she said. "It would, I think, not be unreasonable for the University to pay for streetlights, especially those that are directly adjacent to campus. Certainly those streetlights where students are crossing, for example. There's one area near North Campus that I know we have a lot of students crossing that has been identified by many in the community as a problematic crossing. I would very much like to see that happen."
Though streetlight location priorities will not be officially determined until after the assessment, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) said last month in a City Council planning session that priority should be determined by the vulnerability of the residents the lighting affects.
"I also realize that not every crosswalk will be updated within the first year, but how I would go about prioritizing something like safety is starting from the most vulnerable,” Kailasapathy said. “So for me I feel like children are the most vulnerable and that's where we start."