Council debates funding paving projects vs. long-term savings from LEDs

by: VERN UYETAKE - Anthony Hooper, support services supervisor in the citys operations division, stands beneath a light on a corner near the Lake Oswego Public Library. The light, one of the first in the city converted into a more energy-efficient LED fixture, provides clearer, more contentrated illumination than older models, which had to be replaced more often and cast a warm glare.Lake Oswego will convert thousands of streetlights to LEDs in the next five years.

The first phase of the effort, approved by the city council last week, will retrofit the city’s 1,415 “cobrahead” lights at a cost of $470,000. The project is expected to start in January.

Once the conversions begin, the clock will start ticking on a five-year period for the city to convert and take over maintenance of several thousand streetlights, a network today owned and maintained in part by the city and in part by Portland General Electric.

Officials expect to save money in the long run despite being responsible for more of the lighting system thanks to reduced energy and maintenance costs.

“We have to realize this project is not money that just goes away; it actually makes us money,” said Anthony Hooper, support services supervisor in the city’s operations division.

Altogether the project, which will be carried out in two phases, is estimated to cost about $1.7 million. But with annual savings estimated at $240,000, it should pay for itself in six or seven years — saving $2.4 million over the next decade, according to the city.

Using LED fixtures will also provide better light, Hooper said. Light-emitting diodes provide clearer, more concentrated illumination when compared to older, less efficient mercury vapor lights or their high-pressure-sodium counterparts, which tend to disperse light over more space and cast a yellow or orange glow.

But not all council members were convinced the payoff was worth sacrificing money now to make the investment, and several citizens spoke against the change at city hall last week.

“It seems like we have justified this exercise by saying it’s going to save us money and it’s going to improve light quality, but those are shaky reasons in my mind to spend a little under $2 million for streetlights,” said resident Don Nash.

Resident Dave Luck, noting he has worked in the energy industry for many years, said he thought the price of LEDs would continue to drop in the coming years.

“I believe the retrofit of the standard cobrahead light fixtures has merit — but a couple years in the future, not now,” he said.

Jackie Manz, a member of the city’s budget committee, advocated for “prudence and caution” in moving ahead with the project, possibly waiting until the next budget cycle or the one after that.

Hooper told the council that Lake Oswego will spend less purchasing LED fixtures than staying the course with old lights, in part by piggybacking on a contract now being worked out by the city of Portland, which also plans to retrofit streetlights. In addition, he said, LED prices have dropped in the last five years, and by moving ahead now the city will begin to realize savings in energy and maintenance expenses.

“It’s a lot of money over 20 years that can go toward pavement,” Hooper said. “It actually creates capacity for other projects.”

In addition to reducing its energy consumption, the city will spend less maintaining streetlights with LEDs than paying PGE to maintain a system of older lights. The LEDs come with a 10-year warranty and are expected to last up to 20 years, whereas crews had to replace the older lights every four or five years.

by: VERN UYETAKE - The city is moving toward retrofitting several thousand streetlights so theyll be like this one near the library; it uses an LED rather than a mercury vapor or high-pressure sodium light.The council voted 4-2 in favor of the conversion.

Councilors Jeff Gudman, Jon Gustafson, Donna Jordan and Skip O’Neill supported the change. Councilors Karen Bowerman and Lauren Hughes were opposed, while Mayor Kent Studebaker was absent.

Jordan said the more concentrated light provided by LEDs would keep the city in compliance with “dark sky” standards. The city regulates streetlights and outdoor lighting on public properties in hopes of keeping the glare of urban lights from washing out stars in the nighttime sky and protecting the natural environment for wildlife.

“I don’t know that people are aware of our dark sky ordinance in town, but we violate it in a lot of places,” Jordan said. “This is an opportunity for us ... to not only take care of that but also to provide a safer lighting environment for those streets in the community.”

Gustafson said the savings projected from switching to LEDs could be used down the line for street maintenance.

“What we need to be looking at are long-term strategies to help maintain our streets,” he said.

But Bowerman said she worried the city was taking away from those types of projects now. Money to pay for the streetlight project will come from the street fund.

“I think it’s a very good investment,” Bowerman said. “I don’t think it’s a good investment for our city right now.”

Hughes agreed.

“This is an issue of priorities and focus,” she said. “I look at all the projects we have that we need to get done, particularly our street condition right now — I hate to divert money away from those things.”

Gudman expressed frustration that the public works department was unable to use all of the money allotted for pavement repairs during last spring’s budgeting sessions.

The city’s budget committee, made up of seven citizen volunteers and the city council, allocated close to $1 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year — more than four times the amount initially proposed — to fund basic road upkeep.

“When we go through the budget process and grind the numbers down to whatever we want to spend on given projects, we really want you to spend that money,” Gudman told city staff members. “What changes in the process going forward can we do so, if we put $1 million into road maintenance, we can expect a million dollars to be spent on road maintenance?”

The city has surplus money in its street fund despite widespread paving needs because of a “natural delay” in the funding of road projects, according to the city staff.

Erica Rooney, assistant city engineer, said spending a million dollars on road work could take a year and a half to two years. That’s how long it takes to plan and design, advertise for contractors and then construct the project.

Allocating money for new pavement in July and asking for it to be spent by the following June is unrealistic, she said.

“Money does get spent on pavement, on roadway projects; it’s just very, very difficult to spend it only within one year,” Rooney said. “It is getting spent. It’s just the timing perhaps is not perfect with the budgeting.”

A short window of time to conduct the work exacerbates the problem. Crews are particularly limited with paving projects by “a very short window of construction,” she said, because wet weather often arrives in September or October and stays through early June.

In addition, unexpected needs frequently crop up, like the recent Oak Terrace rock fall now being dealt with. That takes away staff time from other projects, making it even harder to judge whether having more advance notice of the street budget would help get more projects accomplished.

“It’s not widget production,” Rooney said.

Kara Hansen can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 107. Follow her on Twitter, @LOreporter.

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