While the city of Tulsa continues efforts to repair highway lights darkened by copper thieves, a Tulsa World survey found nearly half of the city-maintained highways to be unlit.
The survey of lights on Tulsa-maintained highways found that about 44 percent were dark, despite the recent announcement by city officials that efforts to repair damaged highway lights were 85 percent complete.
The city of Tulsa said it doesn’t have a database of highway lights that it maintains, so it could not say which ones were on and which were off on any given day.
So the Tulsa World used satellite maps to create a database of Tulsa highway lights.
Then a visual survey was conducted in late November and early December to determine which highway lights were on and which were off.
The survey, which did not include lighting on most entrance and exit ramps, (also a city responsibility) found:
• The Inner Dispersal Loop and Broken Arrow Expressway, which at the time of the survey had yet to have missing wiring replaced by city crews, were both nearly totally dark. Workers began replacing wiring in the Broken Arrow Expressway lights last week.
• On nearly every other highway in the city, a sizable portion of lights were unlit.
• The Red Fork Expressway on the city’s west side has 72 percent of its lights unlit.
• The portion of the Creek Turnpike in the city of Tulsa had the lowest percentage of inoperable lights, with only 8 percent unlit. Unlike other highways in the city of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority maintains the Creek Turnpike lights.
The city of Tulsa, in an emailed statement, said the 85 percent figure represents the “amount of wiring that has been restored to provide power to highway lights. This does not account for the number of fixtures actually lit.”
Mayor G.T. Bynum, in a separate emailed statement, said the priority, or “job number one” in restoring highway lighting, is replacing electrical infrastructure stolen by thieves.
“We know that at any given time light bulbs will burn out or a driver will hit a pole and knock it temporarily out of commission,” Bynum wrote. “Any of those instances can be addressed on a rolling basis. But none of the light fixtures work if they can’t receive electricity.
“So we are pulling whatever resources we need to focus on resolving that fundamental problem as quickly as possible. I am thankful for the cooperation of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the railroads in allowing us the access we need to make these repairs.”
A city spokeswoman said some of the lights have been restored since the World conducted its survey. However, other lights continue to be extinguished due to vehicle collisions or blown fuses, the spokeswoman said.
The city said it hopes one day to be able to better track outages. The city has selected a consultant to assist in the development of a database that maps the location of all highway lights, along with highway signs, stripes, guardrails and other highway assets.
In the meantime, the city has resorted to having staff drive all highways every two weeks to identify highway lighting conditions, according to the statement.
And while police have made numerous arrests for theft of copper wiring from light poles, large sections of lights continue to be darkened because of copper theft, city officials confirmed.
Budget cuts, then thieves
Keeping highway lights on has been an issue for city officials in recent years.
During an economic downturn, the city actually turned off all the highway lights in October 2009 in an effort to save money.
About a year later and after one highway death was attributed to darkened roads, the city turned the lights back on.
Then bands of roving thieves began stripping out all the wiring from miles of highway lights to scavenge the copper.
About 18 months ago, city officials announced that they were stepping up efforts to repair the lights and catch those responsible for the outages. Earlier this year, police said they had arrested at least 19 people in connection with the wiring thefts.
Last month, city officials said workers had repaired 60 of 70 miles of damaged lights along the highways, leaving only the Inner Dispersal Loop and the Broken Arrow Expressway to be rewired.
In all, city officials say they expect to spend nearly $10 million replacing damaged lights with new aluminum wiring, which carries a lower resale value at scrap yards.
Bynum, in his State of the City speech Nov. 2, said the city has “expedited the rewiring of every single highway light in town.”
In the meantime, residents have expressed their frustrations in a variety of ways, from calling their elected officials to taking to social media.
Motorist Hans Pasco took to Facebook Live to express his concerns with unlit city highways.
In one video, Pasco laments the lack of lights while driving along the Broken Arrow Expressway, where the World’s survey found nearly every highway light to be unlit.
“It’s a dark canyon when it used to be a well-lit thoroughfare,” Pasco said in an interview.
He called the highway a safety hazard due to the darkened roadway.
“It’s frustrating, because it’s a frustrating road anyway, engineered to the ’60s standards. … Then you’ve got the amount of traffic that’s on it perpetually, day or night,” Pasco said. “Then at night it’s a difficult drive as people try to make it.”
Lighting on urban highways is indeed a safety issue.
Roadway lighting can reduce night-time crashes by about 30 percent, city officials said, citing Federal Highway Administration statistics.
What the survey shows
Here’s what the Tulsa World survey found about lighting outages on Tulsa highways.
About one in every 10 lights on the Inner Dispersal Loop, the highway that circles downtown, was operating when surveyed.
City officials say the IDL and Broken Arrow Expressway are the last two highways that remain to be rewired with aluminum wiring. Work on the Broken Arrow Expressway began last week and is scheduled to be complete by late 2018.
Nearly three out of every four lights on average were unlit on the Red Fork Expressway portion of I-244. With 72 percent of lights unlit, the highway ranked the third worst in terms of lit highway lights after the BA and the IDL.
City officials said some of the city’s newest street lights on I-244, those on the Arkansas River bridge, were extinguished within the past two months when thieves stole their copper wiring.
Tulsa City Councilor Jeannie Cue noticed the most recent darkening of the highway lights.
“I was driving and I glanced up and I thought, ‘This is so dark,’” said Cue, whose District 2 includes the Red Fork Expressway and the portion of U.S. 75 that continues south toward Glenpool.
Highway light outages are the second-most-discussed topic among her constituents, after code enforcement issues, Cue said. “I’ve had a lot of calls,” she said.
The World survey found that 54 percent of the lights on Interstate 44 were not illuminated, making it the No. 4 ranked highway in terms of unlit lights.
Nearly every light is out on the western side of Interstate 44 from the Arkansas River to the western city limits.
Things improve along the 2½-mile stretch of highway between the Arkansas River and Harvard Avenue, where most of the lights were lit. The highway is among the most recent to be rebuilt.
Lighting woes continue to rank high for another westside highway, where about half of the lights along the Keystone Expressway, U.S. 412 from downtown to Sand Springs, were out.
For more than 1½ miles, the lights on the south side of the highway between Gilcrease Museum Road and 36th West Place were extinguished, while those on the north side of the street were on during the World survey.
City officials said some lights on the Keystone Expressway have been turned back on within the last two weeks.
U.S. 75 North
U.S. 75 north of downtown ranks No. 6 in terms of the number of lights that were unlit, with 38 percent not illuminated.
Most of the problem lights on U.S. 75 are found just north of downtown, where most were unlit. Starting about half a mile north of downtown, every light on the east side of the highway is unlit for the next half-mile or more, while lights on the other side of the highway are lit.
The L.L. Tisdale Expressway ranks about the same as U.S. 75 north of downtown.
About 37 percent of the lights on that highway, which runs north from downtown to 36th Street North, were unlit.
About one in four street lights were working along the Okmulgee Beeline and Gilcrease expressways, the survey found.
However, the Beeline, the portion of U.S. 75 south of the Red Fork Expressway, includes a large stretch of highway with no light poles.
The area of the Beeline with no light poles is from roughly one-half mile south of I-44 to 91st Street — roughly 3½ miles.
Unlit lights on the Gilcrease Expressway, or Oklahoma 11, were scattered, rather than concentrated, along the highway.
The Crosstown Expressway, the portion of I-244 between downtown and I-44 ranks third best in terms of working lights.
About 22 percent of the lights on the Crosstown Expressway were unlit.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a large portion of the highway has recently been rebuilt by the city. The rebuilding included the addition of new highway lights installed along the center barriers.
About 18 percent of the lights along U.S. 169 were unlit during the survey.
Many of the outages were located near the I-44 interchange.
The best lit highway in Tulsa was the Creek Turnpike in far south Tulsa. All but about 8 percent of the highway lights were operating on the tollway.
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority maintains the lights on the Creek Turnpike in Tulsa, said agency spokesman Jack Damrill.
A few years ago, the OTA experienced some highway light outages due to copper theft, Damrill said. Those lights have since been repaired, he said.
The city of Tulsa is the only large city in the state that maintains its federal and state highway lights, according to city officials.
Local leaders decided about 30 to 40 years ago to assume maintenance duties of highway lights. Power providers maintain highway lights in other cities, according to city officials.