With the help of a new streetlight technician and a rented machine to patch up roads, the city's Public Works Department has been attacking darkened streets and deteriorating roads with a new-found capability.

Since the city hired a new streetlight technician in December, the Public Works Department has already fixed 192 streetlights. That's almost half as many as were fixed in all of 2012.

Before the city hired the new technician, other maintenance workers were pulled off their normal duties or asked to attend to the city's lamps on overtime. This meant that streetlights were only being fixed one or two days a week. But according to City Engineer Curt Bates, those days are now over.

"Our new guy has made a huge difference," said Bates. "He's been working on a lot of the 'trouble lights' that require more than just changing a bulb. Sometimes (there are) cut wires, or more complicated fixes, so he's been targeting those particular lights recently."

While the new streetlight technician has made significant headway, the city is still facing nearly 400 lights out — roughly the same amount that were out when the streetlight technician started. That's because streetlights are constantly going out even as others are being replaced, Bates said, pointing out that this is a problem that all cities experience.

"With these older, conventional streetlights, you replace one and another one burns out," said Bates. "That's why we're so pleased with the results from the LED program we began last fall."

Bates was referring to a PG&E pilot program the city took advantage of in August, which allowed for 140 regular high-pressure sodium streetlights to be replaced with Light Emitting Dials, or LEDS, at no up-front cost to the city. The new LEDs were supplied by PG&E and are paid for over time by energy savings the city receives from the energy efficient lights.

Originally, the city agreed to change out a portion of their older streetlights with LEDs and to monitor the safety, shelf life and performance of the new lights. Bates said that after six months, the city is extremely pleased with the results of the switch.

"We've received a lot of positive feedback on the LEDs," Bates said. "We're hearing from the public and the police department that the new lights are brighter, and we're seeing energy savings already."

Because of these positive results, the city is exploring an expanded version of the program with PG&E, which would provide $250,000 worth of LEDs to replace approximately 200 lights throughout the city. Bates said it would account for all the street lights at signaled intersections in Petaluma.

"It would also cut down on the problem of lights continuing to burn out all the time because these lights have an estimated 25-year lifespan," said Bates.

The City Council recently made completing the PG&E streetlight retrofit program a goal at its annual goal setting session, though specific dates for the replacement haven't been set.

Bates also said that with the added street technician, other city public works employees have been freed up to take care of their regular jobs, which include street repair.

Since the city rented a pavement crack sealing machine in October, the Public Works street team has sealed 30 miles of cracks in Petaluma's deteriorating roads. Crack sealing helps prolong the lives of roads by patching and filling cracks with a water-proof material. Bates said the city has also fixed 2,552 potholes and patched 180 stretches of road throughout the city last year.

"Our crews have been out there doing a lot more, and it's really showing," said Bates.

Public Works Director Dan St. John said that he has been pleased with the progress made by the Public Works maintenance crews. "I'm pleased with the quality and quantity of work," St. John said, adding that he is looking forward to future progress being made on the LED retrofitting program and the efforts made by the street crews.

Meanwhile, a longterm fix to address the multi-million dollar problem of Petaluma's deteriorating roads is still financially out of reach, though City Manager John Brown and city staff have begun analyzing city funds to try to address the issue.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at Janelle.Wetz stein@arguscourier.com.)