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Lighting up Petaluma's streets


Along some streets in Petaluma in the past couple of years, you might have thought you were living in the Dark Ages.

Not because Petaluma isn't a modern city, but because burnt-out streetlights were a mounting problem.

Residents complained about shadowy streets, bicyclists unwittingly rode into bushes, ne'er-do-wells did their deeds under cover of darkness.

But the city listened to the complaints — and probably more importantly — committed money to reducing the problem, hiring a new streetlight technician whose primary mission was to replace darkened streetlights all day long.

"When you put some resources toward it, you get something done," said Dan St. John, the city's public works chief.

In December, the city had about 360 reported streetlight outages out of a total 4,800 lights citywide, said City Engineer Curt Bates. That's almost 8 percent of outages in the city's 160 miles of roads.

But since the city hired Dave Ours last year as a second streetlighting and traffic signal technician, that list has been reduced to less than two dozen.

"I'm down to 15 or 20 at the moment," Ours said Thursday afternoon. "We were in quite a hole when I got here, and I'm slowly digging myself out since. We're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel here, excuse the pun."

Ours and John Matyja "have been quite productive this year" in reducing the backlog and taking care of other maintenance and repair issues, Bates said.

The problem — or more precisely, the never-ending cycle of lights that inevitably burn out — fed on itself in the economic downturn when the city reduced staff and couldn't keep up with light replacement and maintenance.

Public works staffing was cut, budgets were reduced and non-essential tasks were put on the back burner. Over the past several years, the issue grew exponentially as workers couldn't keep pace as lights continued to die out. Delays of several months for repairs were common.

Lombardi Avenue resident Alden Hennings almost made a fixture of himself at City Council meetings last year, regularly scolding the city for not taking care of the burnt-out lights — including one in front of his house that was out for months.

"I understand they've made a lot of headway," he said. "It made a lot of people feel really good. I think the city made a great effort to get it done."

Ours said at the height of his work, he was working on as many as 30 lights a day.

Some cities, including Santa Rosa, have purposely darkened streetlights to save money on electricity. In 2009, Santa Rosa started the first phase of a four-year program to turn off or reduce the amount of time most of the city's streetlights were on.

Keeping the streets and sidewalks lighted improves public safety and reduces the city's exposure to legal claims, Bates said.

"After working my way down the list, we're getting to the point where we should be getting them fixed within a month from time it gets called in," Ours said.

He said he's encountered a lot of residents during his work. Most are thankful.

"In a lot of neighborhoods, you have a few people who don't want the light working," Ours said. "On one light, one person thanked me from the bottom of his heart for fixing it, and another said, 'As soon as you leave I'm gonna shoot that thing out.

Neighbors are funny when it comes to their lights."

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)