Many people say Berkeley streets are too dark. As seen here on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at the city border, Oakland, in the distance, appears better lit. Oakland lights also appeared, to a casual observer, to be a brighter white than the yellow hue of Berkeley’s LEDs. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The city of Berkeley is in negotiations over who will pay for the labor to replace its streetlights systemwide due to elevated failure rates that have dimmed some lights around town over the past year, Berkeleyside has learned.

San Jose-based Leotek Electronics “has accepted responsibility” for the failing fixtures, which are still under warranty, and will replace them at no charge with a newer model that’s more efficient, city spokesman Matthai Chakko told Berkeleyside last week. As it turns out, the fixtures Berkeley has throughout the city are no longer being made, he said, hence the new units.

Leotek will cover the equipment itself, but who will pay for the labor costs remains an open question. Chakko said he did not know when negotiations might conclude.

Phil Harrington, public works director, told City Council members earlier this month that the streetlight issue was “unfortunate.” He assured officials the city will “get a better deal” once the new lights have been installed, however. That’s because the new fixtures won’t be “as harsh” and will lead to greater cost savings because they are even more energy efficient than existing lights.

Harrington told council members during a Feb. 5 special meeting that he thought the city was “almost at the final stages of working with Tanko [Lighting], who was the consultant who helped us, and with [supplier] Leotek, in getting those [lights] replaced.”

In 2014, the city began to swap out its old high-pressure sodium lamps with 8,000 light emitting diode (LED) fixtures. The change generated mixed reviews from community members, including some who complained the new lights were too bright.

That year, Chakko told Berkeleyside the LEDs were supposed to last 15-17 years. But, less than five years later, the city realized there was a problem.

In early 2018, he told Berkeleyside last week, diodes within some of the LEDs began to fail at a higher-than-expected rate. Chakko said the failure was noticed all over town, not just in one area. Minimal information was available from the city about the extent of the failure.

But Chakko said city staff has worked quickly to replace failing fixtures as they’ve happened. He also noted that, when individual diodes within a fixture fail, it diminishes the light but does not eliminate it. The number of lights that have been replaced was not immediately available.

Traffic safety concerns

News coverage on Berkeleyside of recent crashes has sparked a significant community dialogue about safety and street lighting. This year has already seen a number of crashes in Berkeley that resulted in serious injuries to pedestrians. It represents a broader trend: Year after year, the state’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) has ranked Berkeley first, among nearly 60 cities of similar size, for injury or fatal vehicle collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians who are 65 or older are more at risk in Berkeley than in any of those other cities, according to the most recent data from the OTS.

Many readers say driver and pedestrian behavior must change if the streets are to become safer. But concerns about lighting have also been a common theme.

“The lighting is so poor at night and it can be nearly impossible to tell where the crosswalks are,” wrote one Berkeleyside reader on Facebook.

Wrote another, “the streets are extraordinarily dim. I’ve had multiple Lyft drivers comment on how dark the streets of Berkeley are compared to surrounding cities in the Bay area.”

A police officer summed up the issue in many parts of town recently for Berkeleyside: “The only ambient lights are headlights.”

The city has launched its “Vision Zero” campaign to eliminate injury crashes and fatalities, but each new report brings more concern.

Some in the community have wondered whether the streetlight problems might explain why it’s so hard to see in Berkeley at night, particularly for drivers and pedestrians. Chakko said the issues are unrelated.

“I understand that people are concerned about lighting, and that’s certainly something we’re concerned about as well. That’s unrelated to this issue,” he said. “We’re replacing the bulbs so there’s no impact on street lighting.”

Chakko said he did not know the typical turnaround-time for fixing the lights because the city does not track it. He said staff replaces the fixtures as failures are observed “to minimize the impact.”

It’s up to staff or community members to report streetlight failures as they occur. The public can use the city’s 311 system to make those reports, Chakko said.

Chakko said the LEDs already save the city $400,000 annually in electricity costs as compared with the old sodium lamps. The city is using the savings to pay down the $3 million low-interest loan it secured for the streetlight overhaul. And the new fixtures from Leotek will be 25% more efficient and cost even less than the existing LEDs, he said.

Streetlights used to make up 32% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations, he added. Now, they make up only 19% — and that number should go down when the new lights are installed, said Chakko.

Harrington told city officials in early February that Berkeley’s new streetlights would measure 3,000 Kelvin, while the current lights have a cooler color temperature of 4,000 Kelvin.

“It’s a better light,” Harrington said, of the new fixtures. “It’ll tone it down but it’s a lot nicer light.… It’s going to be a better fit for the city of Berkeley going forward.”

The new lighting will be “more aesthetically pleasing to a lot of the residents,” he said.

Council members asked him if there’s any way the light from the city’s streetlights could cover more ground or spread farther.

Harrington said it’s possible for the city to “increase the wattage” and add additional lights in “areas that we know to be a little more problematic.” He did not provide much detail about the wattage issue, other than to say residential areas are dimmer than “intersections,” measuring 42 watts rather than 87 watts.

“The broader approach is when we start to install additional street lighting,” Harrington said, adding that officials seemed to be stating “a desire to do that.”

He reminded council not everyone in Berkeley wants it brighter, though.

“Some areas, they don’t like more light,” he told council. “They’re more the ‘dark sky’ type of following.”

Harrington told council that neighbors can apply to the city for increased lighting. Adjacent neighbors on “all four corners” must sign up together, he said. (He did not say how that process works, but Berkeleyside tracked down the streetlight application on the city website.)

Chakko told Berkeleyside the city plans to spend $400,000 this year to repair and improve existing streetlights and add new ones. But he reiterated that the failing LED fixtures are not the issue.

“We’ve definitely heard from people that they want more street lighting in the city, and that’s something we’re working towards,” said Chakko. “But it’s not because of these bulbs.”

No details about exactly when or where the city will install additional lights were immediately available. Chakko said no plan for that effort has been made public. Berkeleyside will provide further information as it becomes available.

What should you do if you see a burned-out streetlight?

The question “How do I get the bulb in a burned-out street light replaced?” is the top question on the city’s Department of Public Works list of frequently asked questions.

According to the city, community members can report malfunctioning streetlights by phone, at 311 within the city or 510-981-CITY (2489), or online. The city says it helps to include the 4- to 5-digit streetlight number that appears on the street side of the pole about 5 feet from the ground.

Read more about streetlights on the city website. This story was clarified slightly after publication.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...