Amid the city’s plans to replace its more than 71,000 streetlights with energy-saving LED bulbs, widespread disagreement remains between involved agencies and some neighborhoods about the most prudent approach.
The D.C. Office of Public-Private Partnerships, established by Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2015, has been working with the city’s Department of Transportation and Office of the Chief Technology Officer since January on a project that would retrofit all of the city’s streetlights with LED bulbs and incorporate “smart city” technology that includes Wi-Fi internet access, broadband cellphone service and other built-in features.
At least seven advisory neighborhood commissions and five citizens association groups citywide have already requested that the city only install lights at a color temperature of 2700 Kelvin or less. That figure is in line with recommendations from a task force of residents that has met numerous times with city agencies and neighborhood leaders this year — based on concerns that high-Kelvin LEDs cast a bright, harsh light that can interfere with sleep. Meanwhile, three Northwest ANCs have made more general requests for less intrusive lights.
City agencies still consider 4000 Kelvin their standard for LED light replacements, though they’ve now incorporated more 3000 Kelvin lights into their plans, particularly for residential areas. Despite protests, though, the city insists that 2700 Kelvin isn’t commercially available to the District and that even if it were, such lights might not be the most effective lights for a given area.
Two smaller-scale LED replacement projects are planned for this fall, in Mount Pleasant and on Massachusetts Avenue NE. Both were conceived with 4000 Kelvin lights in mind, but will now receive 3000 Kelvin lights instead. If they’re successful, a similar approach for the citywide effort might be more attractive, according to the Transportation Department’s Suzette Robinson.
At least two prospective private partners plan to present 2700 Kelvin prototypes along with their broader project designs. “We’re ready to receive those and we will certainly evaluate them,” Robinson said in an interview.
Advisory neighborhood commissions in Chevy Chase, Columbia Heights/Park View, Foggy Bottom/West End, Sheridan-Kalorama, Shepherd Park/Brightwood, Takoma/Manor Park and the Ward 5 area east of Catholic University have requested 2700 Kelvin lights. Citizens association groups in Congress Heights, Crestwood, Kalorama, Manor Park and the Palisades have made the same request. ANC 2C (downtown, Penn Quarter) wants new streetlights between 2700 and 3000 Kelvin.
Other groups have adopted less prescriptive resolutions. ANC 2B (Dupont Circle), ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) and ANC 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park) have asked to see a side-by-side comparison of different light fixtures before reaching a verdict.
Members of the D.C. Street Light Task Force — an ad hoc coalition of residents in wards 2, 4 and 5 — and other observers have said that lights beyond 2700 Kelvin would pose health risks to nearby neighbors, who might find it more difficult to sleep under their glow. A 2016 report from the American Medical Association recommends 3000 Kelvin as the maximum.
The ongoing debate has played out in numerous public forums, including a June 26 meeting of ANC 3/4G (Chevy Chase), where Seth Miller Gabriel from the Office of Public-Private Partnerships fielded a range of pre-emptive complaints.
Some residents there said they want the city to put the project on hold until officials determine the feasibility of 2700 Kelvin lights relative to other ones that could have negative effects. But Miller Gabriel said he thinks planning is already behind schedule and needs to move forward. “If we keep waiting for the next technology, we’ll never actually get better lights, and we’ll be stuck with the lights we’ve had for 30 years,” he said.
Five percent of the city’s streetlights have already been replaced, according to Miller Gabriel. Some residents in Chevy Chase and Georgetown have complained for years that new LED lights were installed with little warning and have caused difficulty sleeping.
“I’m the first one to admit in past years this hasn’t worked out as well as it should have,” Miller Gabriel told ANC 3/4G residents. “But going forward it will.”
One point of disagreement is whether an area is less susceptible to crime if its streetlights are more noticeable.
Those more favorable toward the project, including John Fanning of ANC 2F (Logan Circle), think new lights will make streets safer. “Making sure that the streets and alleys have adequate lighting and are well lit is essential to crime prevention,” Fanning wrote in an email.
Others argue that new streetlights will have the opposite effect, drawing criminals to areas they can easily navigate.
The next step for the streetlight project is to narrow down a list of potential private partners this month. Then the team will forward a formal “request for proposals” to the D.C. Council later this year.
In an interview, Miller Gabriel admitted the planning process has been tougher than he anticipated.
“There’s so many nuances popping up in the lighting industry and the Wi-Fi industry that initially we were unaware of,” he said. “I think in the end, if we do this procurement honestly and fairly to everyone, we’re going to find the right private partner who’s really going to make the District happy.”
Procurement is expected to take approximately a year after a private partner is selected in early 2018, with another one to two years of installation.
The Transportation Department originally resolved to improve the city’s streetlights in 2011, but the process of securing a contractor to oversee the existing lights and begin replacing them with more environmentally friendly LED lights hit repeated snags. After years of contract disputes and other setbacks, the agency canceled its initial request for proposals in April 2015.
This article has been updated to clarify the Kelvin level desired by some residents.