Tackling Columbia's lighting woes isn't just about brightness

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 12:38 p.m. CDT; updated 11:04 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

There has been considerable discussion about street lighting. The Columbia Daily Tribune had an editorial May 22 and a front-page article May 26. Al Germond gave his perspective on May 30 in the Columbia Business Times. Numerous residents have commented on the topic both verbally and in e-mail. Everyone seems to grab one or two pieces of information, add a belief and leap to whole bunch of conclusions. I would like to contribute to the public discussion by doing two things, putting the topic in the context of City Council considerations of the topic and exploring the various policy components. As with many policy issues, on the surface it appears simple but, when carefully analyzed, has many dimensions.

Why is the topic being discussed? There are four factors involved. One is the budget and the commitment to get as much from each dollar as possible. The second is safety and the commitment to ensure lighting is appropriate for safety purposes. The third is the city’s commitment to minimize evening light pollution. The fourth is long-term planning for making the best streetlight technical decisions for the future.


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Street lighting is paid from the general services budget, which is about $54.5 million or 17% of the total city budget. This provides the core city services such as police, fire, health, etc. In the summer of 2008, when considering the proposed 2009 budget, it was noted that one of the largest expenses in the general services budget was street lighting. The streetlights are not paid by the electrical utility and are therefore not a part of the electrical rate structure. They are paid from general revenue. It was estimated that the 2009 bill would be over $1.5 million, or almost 3% of the general services money.  

Simply put, every dollar spent on streetlights was not available to spend on other core city services. Any expense in one category reduces other services that can be offered. The city is one of the largest customers of the electrical utility. It would have been irresponsible of the council to not examine the potential of that category of expenses for cost savings and to ensure the city is getting the highest-quality product for the cost.  

It is important to note that a lot of comment and criticism has been directed at the electrical utility. The electrical utility staff was doing what the council requested:  1) an inventory of what the city was receiving — the number of lights, the type of lights, the wattage and where they were located; and 2) a proposal that would reduce the total bill by $100,000, or about 6%. They did an excellent job of responding to what the customer, the city, wanted.

The second factor was to evaluate the appropriateness of the lighting for safety because that would be a paramount consideration in any decision to reduce lighting. By having the database the electric utility provided, we can now also evaluate if there are areas where minimum standards for safety are not being met and if there are areas where it is being exceeded.

In the Tribune’s May 26 article, Columbia Police Officer Tim Thomason was quoted several times. The sub headline read "Officer: Lamps can deter crime." That is certainly true, but the implication is that brighter lighting is always safer. Not only is that a misinterpretation of what Officer Thomason recommends, i.e. adequate and effective nighttime lighting, but also it is simply not true. There are no data that suggest that brighter lighting is demonstrably safer or, carried to its logical extreme, that the brightest lighting is the safest. On the contrary, constant, excessive, unshielded lighting, especially lighting with a poor color-rendering index (CRI), actually impedes both witness identification and traffic safety. Uniformity, not intensity, is the key issue. The proper approach is efficient, properly shielded, color-corrected and uniform lighting (uniformity ratio of 4:1 or less). One particularly effective strategy for security lighting applications is motion-detector technology. It signals activity and draws attention to whatever triggers the light.

The third consideration is to reduce the light pollution from leakage of light into the night sky. The November 2008 issue of National Geographic had an excellent discussion on light pollution and its impacts. More information is available from the International Dark Sky Association. I remember looking up at the Milky Way as a kid. It's an impressive sight that most kids miss today. With light pollution, we pay money to send light where we don’t want it to go. That doesn’t make much sense. Reducing light pollution is accomplished by improving energy efficiency and appropriate use of technology, which will actually reduce street-lighting costs.

The final factor is building the database for ongoing decisions on new street lighting technologies. Two examples are LED lighting and induction lighting. LED lighting is in the first stage of commercialization. Induction lighting is still in the lab but should start being commercialized in one or two years. The challenge is to know when to make investments and when to hold for the next technological advance. Do we make the investments now or wait for a different technology in a few years? It is essential to have a good database to analyze and help with the investment decisions.

This is an effort aimed at reducing inefficiency, improving public safety, saving money, rediscovering the stars and putting the city in a better position for good decisions on investment in our street-lighting system in the future.

Jerry Wade represents the Fourth Ward on the Columbia City Council.

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