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5:42 pm
Fri December 20, 2013

Bankruptcy Casts Shadow Over Detroit's Plan To Fix Streetlights

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 6:46 pm

Many neighborhoods in Detroit are in the dark — not because of a power outage but because fewer than half of the city's 88,000 streetlights actually work.

In some parts of town, city block after city block is filled with streetlights that never come on.

"At nighttime, man, this look like a ghost town," says taxi driver Howard Askew Sr., as he drives his minivan through a blighted neighborhood only half a mile from Detroit's more prosperous downtown. "You see, there's no streetlights, but you do have a few homes. It's dangerous for these people to come out at night. I would be afraid to even come over here at night."

The 70-year-old cab driver says in this neighborhood, you can't be sure what might jump out from a darkened street corner.

"They bring cars over here and strip 'em. Who gonna see 'em? It's dark over here," he says.

Detroit resident Ashley Martin says she has to get her shopping done in the daytime because it's just not safe to travel at night where she lives. "It's like a two-mile stretch, and there's not a streetlight there at all. It's very, very dark at night, even when you're driving with your headlights on," Martin says.

It's a common complaint along Detroit's city limits as well. Just last week, Detroit media outlets reported that a driver hit and killed a 14-year-old crossing a dimly lit street on the outskirts.

Like many things here, it's a problem born of decades of dwindling tax revenues that left few funds to maintain, let alone rebuild, infrastructure. And that was before Detroit became the largest city in the nation to seek Chapter 9 protection. A bankruptcy judge recently approved $60 million worth of bonds for the first phase of a plan to fix the streetlights.

But Moody's Investors Service is calling the bond issue "credit negative" because now the city will have to use its tax revenue to pay a new debt, explains Wayne State University law professor Laura Bartell.

"If you take from the limited pot of money that Detroit has, that's obviously bad news for the existing creditors because they will get less," Bartell says.

But some Detroit officials say public safety concerns are so urgent that Wall Street simply needs to, well, see the light.

"I had a resident say to me, 'Moody's is not living in my neighborhood,' " says Odis Jones, head of Detroit's Public Lighting Authority. He says the city needs more than twice the $60 million worth of bonds to address a lighting system that was designed in the 1900s and requires a worker to literally flip a switch to turn on some of the streetlights each night.

"We want to modernize the system and right-size. What we don't want is to build a system that the city just can't afford to maintain and then we're in the same situation again," he says.

Jones says it would be too expensive to illuminate all of Detroit's 139 square miles, when much of that area now contains only abandoned homes. So even if the city's plans to restore lighting are fully funded and implemented, sections of Detroit will likely still remain in the dark — by design.

Copyright 2014 WDET-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wdet.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, many neighborhoods in Detroit will be dark - not because of a massive power outage, but because fewer than half of the city's 88,000 streetlights actually work. As Quinn Klinefelter, of member station WDET, reports, Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings are casting doubt that the city can fix the problem.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: In a yellow minivan, cab driver Howard Askew Sr. is cruising through Detroit's midtown area, where investment has been booming in recent years. He's heading for a neighborhood only half a mile away, where he says streetlights, or even the workers to fix them, are rarely seen.

HOWARD ASKEW: Here's a public lighting truck.

KLINEFELTER: The contrast is stark - city block after city block filled with streetlights that never come on.

ASKEW: At nighttime, man, this looks like a ghost town. You see there's no streetlights, but you do have a few homes. You know, it's dangerous for these people to come out at night. I would be afraid to even come over here at night.

KLINEFELTER: The 70-year-old cab driver says in this neighborhood, you can't be too sure what might jump out from a darkened street corner.

ASKEW: They bring cars over here and strip them. Who going to see them? It's dark over here.

KLINEFELTER: In downtown Detroit, Ashley Martin shepherds her two children towards a snowy bus stop under murky sunlight. She says she has to get her shopping done in the daytime because where she lives - in a neighborhood across town - it's just not safe to travel at night.

ASHLEY MARTIN: It's like a two-mile stretch, and there's not a street light there at all. It's very, very dark at night, even when you're driving with your headlights on.

KLINEFELTER: It's a common complaint among Detroit's city limits as well. Just last week, Detroit media outlets reported that one avenue on the outskirts was so dimly lit, a driver couldn't see a child crossing the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Tragedy on the way to school - a 14-year-old hit and killed while waiting for the bus.

KLINEFELTER: Like many things here, it's a problem born of decades of dwindling tax revenues that left few funds to maintain, let alone rebuild infrastructure. And that was before Detroit became the nation's largest-ever city to seek Chapter 9 protection. A bankruptcy judge recently approved $60 million worth of bonds for the first phase of a plan to fix the streetlights here. But Wayne State University law professor Laura Bartell says Moody's Investors Service is calling the bond issue credit negative because now, the city will have to use its tax revenue to pay a new debt.

LAURA BARTELL: If you take from the limited pot of money that Detroit has, that's obviously bad news for the existing creditors because they will get less.

KLINEFELTER: For their part, some Detroit officials say public safety concerns here are so urgent that Wall Street simply needs to - well, see the light.

ODIS JONES: I had a resident say to me, Moody's is not living in my neighborhood.

KLINEFELTER: Odis Jones heads Detroit's Public Lighting Authority, and says the city needs more than twice the $60 million worth of bonds to address a lighting system designed in the 1900s, where a worker literally has to flip a switch to turn some of the streetlights on each night.

JONES: We want to modernize the system, and right-size. What we don't want is to build a system that the city just can't afford to maintain and then we're in the same situation again.

KLINEFELTER: Jones says it would be too expensive to illuminate all of Detroit's 139 square miles when much of that area now contains only blighted, abandoned homes. So even if the city's plans to restore lighting are fully funded and implemented, sections of Detroit will likely still remain in the dark by design.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.