The Gossips of Rivertown--a blog of news and commentary exclusively about Hudson

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Streetlights

This morning, Wednesday, October 22, the Register-Star printed the alarmist headline “City has 60 days to replace street lights.” It seems that phone calls made by Carrie Haddad and Howard Brandston to the Public Service Commission, seeking information, caused the PSC to put pressure on National Grid to remedy the sorry state of our streetlights (two have toppled over because their bases had rusted out), which in turn is putting pressure on the Common Council to make a decision about new streetlights if we don’t want simply to have our current streetlights replaced and to continue on with our current contract with National Grid. You are about to learn more than you ever wanted to know about the streetlights in Hudson.

The streetlights in question are the decorative streetlights along Warren Street, on Promenade Hill, and in Seventh Street Park. These have been a topic of conversation as long as I have been on the Common Council—in other words, since the beginning of 2006--and all of us in the First Ward, especially the residents of the 100 block of Warren Street, are well aware of the sorry state the lamp posts are in. They were installed more than 30 years ago, and over the years, most have been repaired with metal plates at the bases and more recently with duct tape.

Since 1975, when the current streetlights were installed, the City of Hudson has had a contract with first Niagara Mohawk now National Grid. Under this contract, the utility owns and maintains all the equipment—the poles, the wiring, the luminaires (that is, the fixtures at the top of the poles)--and the City leases the equipment and buys the energy from the utility. This arrangement is currently costing the City $74,012.40 a year.

In June 2007, the City received a report on streetlights from the New York State Comptroller’s office. The report encouraged us to explore municipal ownership of the street lighting system, which would mean that the City’s contractual relationship with National Grid would be limited to buying energy from them. That would reduce our costs, since we would not be renting equipment or paying for a service agreement and maintenance of the streetlights would be carried out by our own Department of Public Works. In 2007, when Mike Sassi was heading up DPW, this was a course of action that made sense to many of us on the Council. There would be an initial investment to buy all the equipment, but it could be paid off in somewhere between five and ten years by the money we’d be saving not having a service agreement with National Grid.

A month or so ago, after a streetlight in the pocket park next to Mexican Radio fell over (another has fallen since then), Mayor Scalera assigned the task of resolving the streetlight issue to his aide, Carmine Pierro, and at the informal Common Council meeting on September 8, Pierro made his report. He presented essentially two choices:

(1) Because they have done such woeful job of maintaining our lamp posts over the years, National Grid has offered to replace them with lamp posts of similar design at no charge. The new lamp posts would be fiberglass or aluminum. If we accepted this offer, it would obligate us to enter into a 15-year contract with National Grid--an arrangement that is currently costing the City $74,012.40 a year.

(2) We can buy our own poles and lease the rest of the equipment from National Grid. If the City owned its own poles, we would save $28,000 annually. Money would be borrowed to make the initial purchase, and the amount saved each year would be used to pay off the debt. It is anticipated that the debt could be paid off in 6 to 7 years, depending on the type of lamp post we select.

Because Pierro’s second option, were we to pursue it, involved lots of decisions about the material and design of the poles and the style of the luminaires, and these decisions would have a significant impact on appearance and character of our main street, I suggested to Rob Perry, Common Council President, that he appoint a committee to study this and make a recommendation to the full Council. He did so, appointing a committee headed up by Carrie Haddad and including Chris Wagoner and me.

Our study of the lighting issue ended up involving two people of national stature when it comes to main street design and lighting: Norman Mintz, coauthor of The Living City and Cities Back from the Edge, known in some circles as “Mr. Main Street”; and Howard Brandston, the lighting designer who designed, among many other things, the lighting for the Statue of Liberty. Norman Mintz pointed out that there were too many streetlights on Warren Street—something that I never saw until he pointed it out. (His wife described the lights on Warren Street as “runway lights.”) Howard Brandston agreed that we could eliminate half the streetlights and still have the same level of ambient light on Warren Street. In fact, he assigned some of his RPI students to do a study that confirmed it.

On Tuesday at the Common Council meeting, Carrie Haddad presented the following options, along with the committee’s recommendation:

Option 1
The City leases everything from National Grid, but instead of the carriage lamp streetlights we currently have, we change to fluted cast aluminum poles with Acorn luminaires. The number of streetlights on Warren Street, Promenade Hall, and Seventh Street Park would remain the same. The cost for leasing the poles, the luminaires, and the high-pressure sodium bulbs and purchasing the electricity would be $95,000 each year.

Option 2
The City buys its own poles and leases the luminaires and the bulbs (as well as all the wiring we can't see) from National Grid. The purchase price for fluted cast aluminum poles would be $182,250. Because owning our own poles would reduce the amount of money the City pays to National Grid, the investment would be recouped in less than four years. It has not been determined how much the cost of installing the new poles would be, but putting the installation costs aside, Option 2 would cost the City $86,645 a year for the first four years while we are paying off the cost of the poles, and after that, the cost would be $41,083 a year.

Option 3
This is essentially the same as Option 2 except we follow the recommendations of Norman Mintz and Howard Brandston and reduce by half the number of streetlights on Warren Street, on Promenade Hill, and in Seventh Street Park and increase the bulbs from 100 Watt to 150 Watt. The cost of buying the poles is now $91,125. The cost of electricity and leasing the luminaires and bulbs would be $24,150 a year. However, there would be an additional cost of from $30,000 (if DPW does it) to $80,000 (if an independent electrical contractor does it) for capping off the pole bases where poles have been removed. Again we have not factored in the installation costs, but Option 3 would cost $54,431 in the first four years if DPW does the capping off or $66,931 in the first four years if an independent contractor is hired, and after that the annual cost would be $24,150.

This is the recommendation of the committee:

We buy fluted cast aluminum poles.
We lease the Acorn luminaires.
We use 150 Watt high-pressure sodium bulbs.
We eliminate half the streetlights.

(NOTE: I and the other members of the ad hoc committee are advocating for cast aluminum poles because they are recyclable. The fiberglass poles that people say are "maintenance free" [which to me just means that they can't be repaired] cannot be recycled and would end up intact in a landfill.)

Now here’s really more information than you need. Howard Brandston recommends that instead of the Acorn luminaire, we use the Battery Park luminaire, which was designed for Battery Park in NYC, and instead of high-pressure sodium bulbs, we use metal halide bulbs, which produce a white light instead of the amber glow of the high-pressure sodium bulbs. The problem is that neither of these is currently available from National Grid, but Howard Brandston is hoping to persuade National Grid to make the Battery Park luminaire and the metal halide bulbs available to us. Should this happen, and we agree that we want the Battery Park luminaire, it would cost about $5,000 a year more to lease these luminaires.

So here’s my opinion--beyond agreeing with the recommendation of the committee of which I am a part. I’m perfectly comfortable with the Acorn luminaires, even though you see them everywhere these days—in Saratoga Springs, in my hometown of Holland, Michigan, at Catskill Point, at the Firemen’s Home. I’m comfortable with them because Hudson really had streetlights like this at one point in its history. The Battery Park design quite frankly reminds me of something I might have seen in a shopping mall with valet parking in Dallas.

Historic Hudson owns a vintage streetlight from the City of Hudson that predates the acorn-shaped lights. I've never actually seen that streetlight (it's been in storage since the organization acquired it in 2000), but if someone who has seen it tells me that it's similar to the Battery Park luminaire, I might rethink my support for the Acorn luminaire. But that won't be an issue unless National Grid decides to make the Battery Park luminaire available to us.