Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr.

Keeping Arlington’s streetlights burning can be a daunting and complex challenge. But Arlington County is taking steps to simplify and improve a patchwork of streetlight infrastructure to shorten repair times and save energy. And their most significant repair efforts rely on you.

Streetlights are a public service that we often take for granted. Cars’ ever-improving headlights can hide burned-out streetlights. Bikers and pedestrians are more likely to notice when the streets go dark.

According to Wayne Wentz of Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services, Arlington has more than 17,000 streetlights. These streetlights have a patchwork of owners. Arlington County’s streetlight repair team receives repair requests, categorizes and diagnoses problems, and conducts or contracts out necessary repairs to keep the lights on.

Arlington faces many challenges in repairing its streetlights:

Complex ownership: Of Arlington’s more than 17,000 streetlights, only 5,500 are owned by Arlington County. 12,000 streetlights belong to Dominion Power, but some of the poles on which they sit are still owned by Arlington County. A small number of additional streetlights are owned and maintained by commercial business owners along some of Arlington’s older business strips.

This complex ownership can compound speedy streetlight repair. For example, Arlington County must determine who owns each streetlight before it can be repaired. Knowing the approximate location of a burned-out streetlight can help, but Arlington may need the specific pole number to know for sure. If the light does not belong to Arlington, the county must forward along the request to Dominion for action. If you ask Arlington about the status of a repair to a Dominion-owned streetlight, getting a simple answer can be difficult.

Long repair times: Simply submitting a repair request does not always mean that a repair will be made quickly. For example, a group of streetlights have been out near the corner of Lee Highway and Fort Myer Drive for several months. The speed of repairing these or other streetlights can depend upon how quickly the outage is reported, how complex the repair is, and the identity of the streetlight’s owner. The burned-out streetlights on Lee Highway, for example, are caused by a single downed pole that contributed to more complex cable problems.

For simple repairs to Arlington-owned streetlights, Arlington staff can perform repairs directly, including changing bulbs, replacing fuses, and basic troubleshooting, and Arlington does so as quickly as possible. If repairs require action by Dominion Power, Dominion currently has 45 days from the report date to Dominion to make most repairs under their flat-rate contract with Arlington. So in some cases, the contract allows for lights to be out for a month and a half after Dominion knows about the problem.

Incomplete reporting: Nearly all broken streetlights repaired by Arlington are brought to Arlington’s attention by a constituent report. But constituent reports are often missing critical information, such as the streetlight’s pole number and streetlight type. Arlington staff use Google Street View and other tools to try to fill in the blanks, but this takes time and may require an in-person visit.

To supplement constituent reports, Arlington staff drive around selected areas on one week per quarter, workload permitting, to identify additional outages not reported by constituents. If streetlight outages aren’t reported by constituents, such as if a streetlight is out in an infrequently trafficked area, it could take many months for Arlington to notice.

These are significant challenges, but Arlington is taking strong steps to address them.

Replacing streetlights: In the years ahead, Arlington plans to replace as many streetlights as possible with attractive, reliable, energy efficient models. Its replacement efforts will help reduce outages and expedite repairs. In some cases, streetlights slated for replacement are currently obsolete models for which replacement parts are hard to obtain and effective repair can be challenging. Replacing such lights with newer LED models can reduce energy use, simplify repairs, and save money.

Hundreds of lights have already been replaced as part of ongoing area development. The replacements are typically Carlyle streetlights which are more aesthetically appealing and fall under Arlington’s own repair resources. The Columbia Pike corridor, for example, is scheduled in 2012 for installation of Carlyle lights along a 2+ mile stretch.

Simplifying the ownership structure: Arlington staff appreciate the control the county has has when it owns streetlights outright. This cuts out one step of the repair process and enables faster work. Washington DC has largely avoided this problem because DDOT has nearly total control over streetlights, with the exception of some National Park Service-owned streetlights along federal parkland and adjacent streets.

More than 500 Dominion-owned lights have been replaced by Arlington-owned lights as part of on-going area development. Streetlights owned by building owners are slated for replacement by Arlington-owned streetlights over time. Addressing the complex ownership challenge at the same time as streetlights are replaced can help achieve two benefits at once.

Reducing repair times: In the coming year, Arlington has an opportunity to renegotiate its contract with Dominion for streetlight repair services. Arlington plans to request a shorter repair window than 45 days in order to provide more responsive service for Dominion-owned streetlights. As it negotiates its new contract, Arlington could benefit from the District’s example. DC’s performance-based contract has been highly successful, and the contractor has met or exceeded all standards over the past three years.

How you can help: Arlington residents represent the front lines of streetlight repairs, and pubic assistance is critical toward ensuring a well-maintained streetlight fleet. Arlington officials emphasize that the quantity and quality of information provided in a repair request are critical for the county to evaluate and prioritize repairs.

The county’s online report form requests street address, pole number, problem description and, from a series of photos, the type of streetlight. More precise information is always preferred. This information enables Arlington to quickly determine who maintains the pole and, if the pole is owned by Dominion, to pass along more rapid and comprehensive information.

In addition to the web form, Arlington maintains a phone hotline for streetlights. Arlington consolidates this contact methods and several soon to be enhanced constituent guides related streetlight repairs, construction, conversion, and installation on a streetlight information page.

For streetlight repairs, Arlington does not currently monitor Web 2.0 sites such as SeeClickFix, so the best way to contact them about streetlight repairs remains the reporting forms on Arlington’s website.

Keeping Arlington’s streets lit for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers is a complex task. But thanks to Arlington’s recent steps, and with your help, we can help keep Arlington’s streetlights burning more reliably than ever.

Update: The original version of this article said that Arlington had 17,000 streetlights, but the numbers for county-owned and Dominion Power-owned lights added up to more than 17,000. There are actually more than 17,000 streetlights. The article has been updated.

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.