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Bankruptcy Casts Shadow Over Detroit's Plan To Fix Streetlights

In Detroit, fewer than half of the city's 88,000 street lights actually work anymore.
Quinn Klinefelter
In Detroit, fewer than half of the city's 88,000 street lights actually work anymore.

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 2020 WDET 101.9 FM. To see more, visit WDET 101.9 FM.

Quinn Klinefelter