Neighbors have filed numerous complaints regarding a broken streetlight, shown here, on Parkcreek Court in San Diego's Skyline neighborhood, July 2, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

Research shows that streetlights help reduce traffic accidents and crime, while improving navigation and creating a sense of safety for people.

San Diego city staff say that while they’ve made great strides to address a growing backlog of broken streetlights, those efforts won’t be enough to solve the problem that’s been years in the making.

Thousands of streetlights in need of repairs will remain broken despite the city hiring more electricians and securing federal funding, staff told the Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a meeting last month.

Officials project it will have received more than 7,000 cases for the past fiscal year, which ended last week. Only about 5,000 are estimated to be fixed. 

Officials have attributed the backlog to staffing issues caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, aging infrastructure and a lack of funding — all while the number of outage cases is outpacing the city’s ability to repair them.

“It’s incrementally getting larger as more time moves forward,” said Juan Aguirre, assistant deputy director for the transportation department’s street division. 

Aguirre estimated that if nothing changes, the city’s backlog will continue to grow by 30% each month.

“We can’t keep up,” he said.

Streetlights are an important public safety tool that helps reduce traffic collisions and crime, while improving navigation and creating a sense of safety for people.

Want a broken streetlight fixed?

City officials continue to urge San Diegans to report broken streetlights through the city’s online portal and app, Get It Done. You can make a report here.

And though the city received a $3.5 million federal grant that U.S. Rep. Scott Peters helped secure earlier this year, the money will do little to reduce the backlog: It will go toward upgrading new circuits for just 103 lights in Logan Heights and beach communities.

San Diego’s average time to complete repairs exceeds 200 calendar days, far longer than staff’s long-term goal to respond within three days. 

Harold Moore told inewsource that he’s been waiting four years to see a streetlight fixed in his Skyline neighborhood near Parkbrook Street. The 76-year-old and his wife submitted multiple reports to the city to no avail. At night, it’s pitch black, he said, and he fears someone could rob or assault him.

“It’s so dark that I’ve told my wife, ‘I don’t ever want you going outside at nighttime,’ ” he said.

As a temporary mend, his neighbor leaves lights on at their home to illuminate the streets a bit, Moore said.

Numerous streetlights on and near Parkcreek Court in San Diego’s Skyline neighborhood are not working, July 2, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Smaller cities in San Diego County report better maintenance of their streetlights. Officials in Chula Vista and Carlsbad, which each have 10,000 or fewer streetlights under their care, said it takes about two days to make repairs. 

The city of San Diego has a much larger inventory, with some 60,000 streetlights under its care. Staff said the downtown area, where the largest share of lights are located, is struggling with needed repairs the most.

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn’s District 3, which includes downtown and other communities such as Hillcrest and North Park, comprised more than 3,700 — or about 34% — of the streetlight reports in the city’s Get It Done system as of April. Downtown alone had nearly 2,000 open reports. (The app and online portal, used by residents to make service requests, can include duplicate submissions for the same broken streetlight.)

North Park resident Patrick Bunch had previously reported streetlights being out for blocks on 30th Street between Polk and Howard avenues, a commercial area with frequent foot traffic. 

Bunch, 51, said it took the city about two months to fix most of the lights, but some repair requests remain outstanding on nearby streets. Lit streets can deter many of the petty crimes, such as graffiti and car break-ins, that are common in the area, he said.

“Those are basic needs that should be taken care of,” Bunch told inewsource. “When I pay my tax dollars, I expect to have decent streets and lights that are working.” 

Whitburn’s office has requested more funding for streetlight repairs. 

“One of the issues we see all the time downtown is people experiencing homelessness who are living in encampments and breaking into the street lights to charge phones and plug in electric items,” Bridget Naso, Whitburn’s policy advisor, said in an email. “And for public safety we have to shut them down until they can be repaired.”

The city is now working with a private company to install covers at the base of each downtown streetlight to prevent tampering, and Whitburn led recent efforts for a controversial city ban on camping in public when shelter beds are available.

Officials are also turning to other short-term and long-term fixes for their streetlight backlog. Temporary solar lights are being installed in areas that have been facing long wait times for repairs, and the city has since filled all but two of its 18 open electrician positions while also contracting out work for additional help.

About 600 streetlights will be repaired in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown by the end of July.

Staff hope those efforts will reduce the backlog by half.

Aside from community complaints, city spokesperson Anthony Santacroce said officials use data, such as mapping software, to fix streetlights in ways that are “efficient, effective, and equitable.” Staff chooses which areas to prioritize repairs by considering if outages are near parks or schools, residential density, traffic and accident volume, crime rates and other variables, he said.

But Council President pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe questioned why her district — which includes southeast San Diego neighborhoods from Oak Park to Paradise Hills — wasn’t seeing quicker streetlight repairs, while communities that catered to visitors more than residents were being addressed first.  

“We’re just not being prioritized,” Montgomery Steppe said during the meeting. 

Last year’s budget allocated $2.6 million for installing additional streetlights for areas in need, and another $2.3 million will be spent on maintenance and repairs this year. 

The city expects to use the $3.5 million in federal funding secured by Rep. Peters’ office by 2026. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Crystal Niebla joined inewsource in June 2022 as an investigative reporter focused on infrastructure and government accountability in the San Diego region. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. At the Long Beach Post, Niebla served...