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Peter’s Take: Will Arlington’s Streetlight Management Plan Light Our Way?

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Arlington residents and County government have had a tortured, fitful relationship with streetlights — a key piece of infrastructure on which everyone depends.

That relationship is complicated by the fact that Dominion Energy — not Arlington County government — owns a majority of Arlington’s approximately 19,000 streetlights (Slide 4):

Slide 4 also displays a useful scatter diagram showing the areas of the County in which the Dominion and County streetlights, respectively, are concentrated.

Background

Early in 2018, Arlington County government launched a project to create what it labelled a “Streetlight Management Plan,” and launched a special county website to present key dates and documents. The latest version of the plan posted on that website is dated Nov. 8, 2018.

On Jan. 29, 2019, the chair of Arlington’s Environment and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2) wrote an insightful three-page letter to the County Board (“E2C2 letter”; not yet posted on that website) summarizing the challenges presented by the plan.

Dominion-owned streetlights

At a Jan. 29 County Board meeting, County Manager Mark Schwartz sharply criticized Dominion’s performance:

“Local residents were ‘constantly writing and legitimately complaining’ not just about streetlights that weren’t working, but how their concerns were handled by Dominion.”

There were 3,754 repairs to or replacements of Dominion streetlights from March 2017 through Jan. 31, 2019. For 2,887 cases, the average time without lighting was eight days, but for the remaining 687, the average outage lasted 91 days.

Although Dominion’s local representatives have promised to do better, it’s clear that more and different kinds of pressure must be brought to bear to improve Dominion’s performance.

For decades, Dominion has been among the most powerful business interests in Virginia, lobbying to maximize its profits and minimize its obligations to provide customer service.

One aspect of Arlington’s strategy must be lobbying more aggressively at the regional and state levels to ensure that Dominion is devoting greater revenues to maintenance and replacement of its aging infrastructure rather than distributing those revenues to its shareholders. We need legislators leading the charge for Arlington who are not beholden to Dominion’s legislative apologists such as “Dominion Dick” Saslaw.

While the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) that regulates Dominion still has “some teeth left,” Arlington should lead the charge for further SCC consumer-friendly reforms.

Arlington-owned streetlights

Arlington’s major challenge with respect to the streetlights it owns is to improve current response times which Manager Schwartz noted two years ago were “an average repair time of 30 days for minor outages and up to 120 days for major outages.”

Arlington must improve those metrics by prioritizing streetlight spending according to this principle Schwartz embraced: “People want their government to do the basics before other things.”

Options to rationalize streetlight ownership patterns

The Streetlight Management Plan strives to identify cost-effective ways in which to rationalize current streetlight ownership patterns. Among many other astute observations, the E2C2 letter offers these cautionary notes about the “blending ownership option” of streetlight ownership transfers between Dominion and the County favored by County staff:

“According to preliminary plans, the County would own and maintain streetlights in the business corridors and Dominion would own and maintain streetlights elsewhere. At the end of the transfers, Dominion and the County would own approximately the same number of streetlights.  The costs of this approach are not trivial, however — $20 to $30 million over 10 years.

“E2C2 believes that the approach has merit but offers the following cautions. The approach would relegate virtually all of the streetlights in Arlington’s residential neighborhoods to Dominion. … Dominion has been very reluctant to convert its streetlights to LED, has not introduced dimming technology or a central system for remote sensing, and has a poor response rate to outages and other problems.”

Conclusion

We need to have an extensive and transparent public discussion about the economic benefits and costs of County staff’s blending ownership option compared to the benefits and costs of other options.

For example, the County Board should direct the County Manager to provide for community discussion another option that would involve no ownership transfers, but would involve:

  • a more aggressive lobbying and regulatory strategy to improve Dominion’s performance
  • adjustments to Arlington’s budget to provide greater investments in improving Arlington’s response times

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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