The dots on the city map indicate non-functioning street lamps. The blue dots, all east of Interstate-35, indicate lamps that have since been replaced. The red dots indicate lamps that have not been replaced. City of San Marcos graphic.
By SEAN BATURA
A March 30 mugging on Knox Street remains unsolved, and the case may bear on a citywide effort to replace failing street lamps.
The city has initiated an effort to replace non-functioning streetlights. However, of 87 lamps that had been replaced as of last week’s San Marcos City Council meeting, none were replaced east of Interstate-35 or in the city’s largest concentrations of ethnic minority and low income families.
San Marcos Director of Public Services Tom Taggart told the council that 270 of the 2,018 streetlights inspected during a recent nighttime survey were not functional. Taggart said crews fixed 87 streetlights in the past month and will repair the remaining 183 within two months.
Councilmember Chris Jones, the only African-American on the council, interrupted Taggart’s presentation to ask why no repairs had been made to streetlights on the southeast side of I-35.
“The repairs went according to where we had started the survey,” Taggart said. “In other words, the neighborhoods where we checked first, where we found the failures, those were first on the list, then, to be repaired. And we’re just working through those in (the) sequence that we did the survey. Unfortunately, it takes much more time to repair these lights and replace them than it does to do the initial survey to determine they’re out. So we’re running a backlog on those, and that’s why we haven’t caught up with those at this point in time. But that’s strictly based on the order in which we surveyed them.”
The assault and robbery — which police say is an unusual occurrence in San Marcos — happened on the 700 block of Knox Street, an older, low-income residential area that is relatively dark at night.
The 20-year-old male victim, who sustained cuts and bruises to the face, said he was knocked down around 11 p.m. by two assailants, who beat him and stole $30 from his pocket. The victim did not provide police with a definite enough description of the assailants, though police consider the case to be ongoing.
“We have no leads to go on, we really have nothing in terms of what might lead us to these guys,” said San Marcos Police Department (SMPD) Criminal Investigations Division Commander Chase Stapp.
SMPD Chief Howard Williams said residents can “try not to walk in dark places” as a precaution to avoid being attacked, though he acknowledged avoiding darkness is tough to do if one lives in a neighborhood that is not well-lit at night. Williams advised using a flashlight when walking at night.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” Stapp said. “If it’s possible, if you’re going to be out walking or something like that, to do it with a minimum of two people. Be aware of your surroundings, things like that. Carry a minimum amount of cash. Typical personal safety tips.”
The type of streetlights used on Knox Street and in most of the city have high-pressure sodium vapor bulbs, which may be phased out in favor of lamps that leave less darkness around them.
Said Williams, “If you put a lot of streetlights out there and light the street up, that’s a really one of your cheapest and most effective crime prevention tools available. So it’s a good thing that they’re going back and fixing all these streetlights. And they’re going to replace a lot of the old lights with some more kind of modern things that put out better light and are actually much more efficient.”
In response to a city council request, the city’s public services department has initiated a streetlight pilot program intended to find ways to provide the city with better-quality, more energy efficient lights. Technologies to be tested include electrodeless induction fluorescent lamps — which were installed along C.M. Allen Parkway — and light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures.
“You have a relatively even light amount underneath (an electrodeless induction fluorescent bulb),” Taggart said. “While it’s not extremely bright, it doesn’t go all the way to darkness in between the individual lamps. And one advantage for that is just the experience of having more continuous lighting down the street on these. And you’ll notice with the high-pressure sodiums, you get a much brighter area directly under the fixture, but just beyond that, it gets very dark.”
Taggart said electrodeless induction fluorescent bulbs last about 100,000 hours, resulting in streetlights with lifespans of about 27 years. The public services department also will test six LED streetlights.
“We haven’t picked exactly the location yet,” Taggart said. “It may be in our parking lot here (at San Marcos City Hall). Some of those new fixtures that are just coming out are not yet safety rated for streets. So we don’t want to put those in applications where it may pose some liability for the city if there were any kind of lighting issue.”
The LED streetlights are even more energy-efficient than the electrodeless induction fluorescent bulbs, said Taggart.
“They use less than 40 percent of the energy of the high-pressure sodiums,” Taggart said. “The question is going to be how good the light tone and quality is … there’s a lot of glare associated with them. When you look directly at them, they are very bright.”
Councilmember John Thomaides asked Taggart if his staff is considering LED solar-powered lights, such as those produced by San Marcos-based lighting company Phillips/Widelite.
“We’re exploring with Phillips/Widelite potential partnering opportunities that could create a number of things,” Taggart said. “It could create concurrent economic development benefits. It could facilitate getting our lighting plan done professionally and by people who are much more expert at it than we are …
“It could achieve best-cost level with superior lighting performance for public safety, and would keep infrastructure dollars at home,” Taggart continued. “So we may well be bringing this back to council that this can be worked out, because in order to not be in a competitive bidding situation for this kind of program, we would have to have this coupled with job creation or business retention, or any of the other legal requirements associated with that kind of partnership the council could enter into as an economic development incentive (agreement). In essence, we’re thinking of, and working on, just that kind of partnership with Phillips/Widelite here in town.”
Taggart said his department has only discussed the possibility of an economic development program with Phillips/Widelite, not specific types of lighting the company may be able to provide. Taggart said his department is “working closely” with Amy Madison, executive director of Economic Development San Marcos, to develop a proposal for the council’s consideration “sometime in the near future.”
Dimly lit Knox Street, where a mugging took place on March 30. Photo by Sean Batura.