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Saturday, April 21, 2012

NH budget cuts forcing DOT to turn off the lights

At least 100 state-owned streetlights throughout Greater Nashua, most on heavily traveled roads such as Daniel Webster Highway, Route 3A and Route 101A, are likely to be turned off by this summer as a money-saving move.

Officials are still deciding which ones will go dark.

The process of deciding the fate of streetlights started after the state Legislature cut the Department of Transportation budget in September. It recently gained attention after it raised some hackles on the Seacoast, where decision-making is furthest along.

Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton said public hearings will be held before lights are turned off.

The move is being made, he said, because state legislators cut the department’s utility line item in half, from $1.89 million last fiscal year to $953,000 this year. About 45 percent of that electric bill pays for streetlights.

“It has turned out to be a fairly lengthy process because we didn’t always know exactly where all these lights were, whether they were essential for highway safety, whether there are alternatives – using LEDs, turning off every other light,” Boynton said. “All this has been going on for six months.

“It’s actually a good exercise for us to be doing. A lot of these lights are not necessary for highway safety by today’s standards. They were placed out of want rather than need.”

Two-thirds to three-quarters of the roughly 3,000 state-owned streetlights may be turned off, Boynton said.

About 200 streetlights on poles in the region are owned by the state. None are in Nashua. Most are along well-trafficked roads.

Many streetlights are owned by Public Service of New Hampshire or FairPoint, including virtually all that are on utility poles. Other lights can be owned by the town or city where they’re located, or by a company if on private property such as a parking lot.

A complicating factor is that under state rules, a pole that exists just to hold a streetlight, such as the tall “mast lights” along highways, must be removed if the light isn’t being used because poles are potential highway safety concerns. This requirement was created because state and municipalities pay lower than usual electric rates for streetlights.

At least one group of people – astronomy buffs – is delighted that the issue has come up.

“We hate streetlights, for obvious reasons: They light up the sky,” said Paul Winalski, of Merrimack, secretary of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. “For us, it’s an annoyance. It interferes with a hobby, but it’s really bad for professional researchers.”

Light from streets and buildings, often reflected off atmospheric moisture, means “full darkness” can’t be found even in upper Coos County, he said. Lights from Montreal start diluting the night sky as you move far enough north to get away from light out of places such as Berlin.

“The only place in New England that has full darkness is central and eastern Maine,” Winalski said. “It’s a shame.”

The International Dark-Sky Association certifies “dark sky reserves,” with “distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that’s specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment mission.” The closest is at Mont Megantic in Quebec, which uses the certification to attract visitors.

The International Dark-Sky Association, which has a large chapter in the U.S., argues that much outdoor lighting is not only wasteful, but counterproductive. It cites poorly placed street lights that blind drivers as much as help them, or misplaced safety lighting that creates sharp contrasts that can hide intruders rather than expose them.

Nighttime lights have been implicated in some environmental problems, such as confusing birds and bats.

The question of how much light is needed for traffic safety is more complicated than it may seem.

“In terms of highway safety, more lighting is generally safer. With that said, throughout New Hampshire there are thousands of miles of roadways that are not illuminated for motorists, and yet by national standards, they are considered safe,” Highway Commissioner Christopher Clement wrote in a March 26 letter to Rep. Philip Ginsberg, who had protested the DOT’s decision to turn off ornamental lights on the Scammell Bridge between Durham and Dover. Those are the only state streetlights turned off so far.

Boynton said the decisions are complicated by factors such as wiring.

“Poles don’t all have individual switches; some may be like a string of Christmas lights: You turn one off, they all go off,” he said.

Another money-saving option – turning streetlights off for part of the night when traffic declines – is often blocked by utilities because passers-by report the lights as being broken, leading to unnecessary repair calls.

Another possibility would be switching from bulbs to LEDs, which use far less electricity and last longer. Several California cities are taking bids to do just that, but while it saves money in the long run, it requires an up-front cost at a time when New Hampshire is trying to spend less.

Most traffic signals in the region switched to LEDs years ago to save money and maintenance costs, but high-intensity white LEDs needed for street lighting have been developed only recently.

Boynton argued the streetlight cuts weren’t a grandstand ploy, along the lines of a school targeting popular activities to save money.

“This is not cutting the football team to get everybody’s attention,” he said. “We’re cutting everywhere. The only part of the budget that is off limits is winter maintenance.”

He said six highway maintenance facilities have been closed and 68 positions trimmed since the cutbacks were announced.

“We have fewer employees now than 25 years ago – 1,600 employees,” Boynton said. “Line striping, we’re cutting back on some secondary roads. We’re not paving as much as we want; maybe shimming, doing rough paving, instead.”

Bridge maintenance, guardrail repair and drainage maintenance will also be cut.

The total Highway Department budget this fiscal year is $532 million.

The budget is funded by several methods. Money from tolls pays for 90 miles of turnpike. Other work is covered by state highway funds, which come from the state gasoline tax of 18 cents a gallon and vehicle registration, and from the federal highway fund, which mostly comes from federal gasoline tax.

Less gasoline use caused by the recession and greater vehicle efficiency have cut some highway funding, causing debates throughout the country.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or