The City of Calgary’s operating budget is approaching $5 billion but there isn’t $500,000 anywhere to help reduce the time it takes to fix streetlights

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It seems Calgary city council believes we can’t afford to keep the lights on.

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Back in 2019, council members turned down a $400,000 increase in the city’s streetlight budget.

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This tiny addition — microscopic in the context of an organization the size of Calgary — would have improved the target response time for fixing streetlights to seven days from the current standard of 30 days.

Extended streetlight outages make our streets more dangerous, whether it’s personal safety or vehicle-pedestrian safety.

Slightly increasing the budget to allow for a speedier response might have been the best $400,000 Calgary had ever spent.

But it didn’t happen and Calgarians continually pay for this act of budgetary virtue-signalling.

Earlier this fall, I joined QR Calgary radio host Ted Henley to commiserate about some of the incredibly long responses to lighting issues we’d both experienced.

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I brought up a string of lights on the main street near where I live, which had been out for more than a year. Happily, they’ve since come back online.

A few weeks ago, the lights went out for several blocks not too far from my home, including a notoriously bad crosswalk I’ve written about before. I fear for my life when using it during the day and it’s downright terrifying to cross there when it’s pitch black.

I dutifully reported the outage through the city’s website. But at the moment, the online tool doesn’t allow users to add notes about safety and security concerns related to a streetlight problem.

Calgary streetlight outage map
A view of the city of Calgary’s streetlight outage reporting system, Screen capture via Postmedia Calgary

I contacted 311 but the kind and professional operator who took my call told me there was nothing more to be done. They suggested I contact my city councillor, with the hope of getting the matter sorted out sooner than later.

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This was the answer I was expecting, as I had been previously told calls to 311 for streetlight outages would be met with sympathy but not much else.

It turns out we were both misinformed.

For a time, it was the city’s policy to not have 311 handle streetlight issues but this has since been changed, said Michael Gray, street light design leader for the city of Calgary.

It’s now possible to call 311 to report a broken streetlight and flag any additional concerns.

“311 is a valid way to report a streetlight outage and so is the (online) map,” he said in a recent interview.

Streetlight situation slowly improving but things could be fixed even faster still

It’s currently taking about 50 days to fix outages, Gray said, but by the second quarter of 2024, the city’s response to broken streetlights is expected to be closer to the 30-day standard.

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Despite not having received a budget boost four years ago, the city’s streetlight department is doing what it can to bring response times down, although things got complicated in March 2022 when Enmax said it would pull out of the streetlight repair business.

For the past year, Iconic Power Systems has maintained Calgary’s streetlights and the backlog of broken streetlights is slowly being cleared, said Gray.

“In February of this past year, we had about 5,000 outages citywide. That number has fallen to about 3,000 lights out across the city,” he said. “We’ve seen them make quite a bit of progress.”

As far as he’s aware, Gray said, there hasn’t been any indication since 2019 of a potential budget increase from the current $4.5 million/year to further reduce the 30-day response time.

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Calgary streetlights
LED street lighting in Altadore on January 26, 2015. Photo by Mike Drew /Mike Drew/Postmedia file

Some of Calgary’s streetlight problems aren’t to do with money.

In addition to the streetlight repair contractor issue, the COVID-19 pandemic created problems in 2022 relating to lead time for materials and illness among workers, compounding existing problems, Gray said, as did a worldwide chip shortage affecting the supply of lights.

And then, there are the repairs themselves.

“On top of money, some of the fixes are quite complicated and require getting permits, (and) notifying homeowners of impending construction that may impact their property,” he said.

Still, there’s no denying more money would help.

For a city whose operating budget is about to push $5 billion, there must be $500,000 somewhere to drastically improve something as essential as streetlight repairs.

This is a vital matter of public safety and security, and as Calgary city council convenes to adjust its 2023-26 budget, I hope our politicians see the light.

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