On November 28, 2011, Mission resident Blair Moser called the city to replace a burned-out streetlight at the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue and 24th Street. The light went unfixed.
Ten days later a woman was brutally raped near the intersection, and many neighbors pointed to the burned-out light and slow response by the city and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).
“I think attention must be paid to shortening the time for those repairs,” Moser said at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on Monday where the issue of street lighting was heard.
“It is a safety and quality-of-life issue,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, adding that the meeting was just the beginning of the conversation.
PG&E representatives said the company never received the complaint.
The incident illustrates the ambiguity of who owns the city’s streetlights and who is responsible for fixing them.
PG&E owns 43 percent of the lights in the city and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and other government agencies own the remainder.
The majority of calls, however, are for PG&E. Last year there were 30,000 streetlight complaints through the 311 system; 60 percent of those were for lights owned by PG&E, according to Barbara Hale of the PUC.
“We are getting better at meeting the level of obligations we have imposed on ourselves,” Hale said. “We are looking at fixing those streetlight issues within 48 hours of having received a request.”
The city pays for the maintenance of all city lights, including those owned by PG&E, but it is up to each agency to replace burned-out lightbulbs.
The light on Fair Oaks Avenue is owned by PG&E, but those on 24th Street are owned by the PUC. When Moser called the city’s 311 services to report the outage, they told her that PG&E owned the light and was responsible for maintenance.
Since residents have no way of knowing who owns the light, their requests are sometimes routed to the wrong agency. That creates duplicate service calls and delays, said the director of the 311 center, Nancy Alfaro.
Service could be improved if streetlight poles identified the light’s owner, she said.
The Fair Oaks light that Moser called about went unfixed until Wiener’s office intervened. But Fair Oaks is not the only street with lighting issues.
When Nash Hirjee moved to 17th and Shotwell streets in 2009, he was concerned about the lack of street lighting. He filed a complaint, which led the PUC to conduct a light study in 2010 that identified the stretch of 17th Street from Mission Street to Treat Avenue as inadequately lit.
A work order recommendation sent by the PUC to PG&E shows that some lights along the stretch are too low, generating as little as 4,000 lumens; the recommended lumens level is 10,000.
“Airport runways and freeway ramps have better lighting,” Hirjee said. “Why is a busy pedestrian area — with high crime — why is it poorly lit?”
There is very little the city can do in this situation.
“This was simply a recommendation that was communicated by our staff to help PG&E address public concerns about lighting safety,” said PUC spokesman Tyrone Jue. “It is ultimately up to PG&E on whether they want to take any action.”
Seventeenth Street was once a quaint industrial street, but in recent years nightlife in the area has boomed and traffic along the route has increased rapidly. A designated bicycle route, it is traveled by hundreds of cyclists and motorists daily. The city plans to build a park and affordable housing at a parking lot on 17th Street and Folsom Avenue.
“[The street] is a designated bike lane, it’s a pedestrian lane,” Hirjee said. “In our area, streetlights are the primary source of illumination. It is inadequate as confirmed by the city itself; we need to improve those streets.”
PG&E says it is not so simple. When the utility company identified areas that needed upgrades under its capital improvement program, 17th Street was not one of them.
“We identified the ones with the most frequent burnout and tried to find a metric that was unbiased,” Jimi Harris of PG&E told the supervisors’ committee. “We want to identify areas with high crime and that is a priority as well, but we do not have tremendous information about crimes happening in various districts.”
Because 17th Street is currently being repaved, PG&E cannot upgrade the lights until five years from now at the earliest, per city ordinance.
“This is going to be a public park for children. It’s unacceptable and inadequate and we should not have to wait five more years,” Hirjee said.