During the day, Capp Street between 16th and 24th streets is chock-a-block with tidy and not-so-well-kept triple-deckers, aging apartment buildings, a few churches, community centers and commercial buildings.
Most residents are off to work in the mornings, lending the street a relatively tranquil and sleepy air. But three or four hours after the sun goes down, Capp Street transforms. Pimps, prostitutes and the Johns cruising for them move in. In the morning, homeowners and pedestrians dodge used condoms, dirty needles and shattered car window glass.
Working street lights, residents have said for years, would illuminate the street to make it safer for residents and more difficult for hustlers.
“The lights are our main concern,” said Molly Messenger, a Capp Street resident who helped form a neighborhood watch group in March to focus on finding solutions to the streetlight problem. “They would go out for weeks at a time.”
Eight streetlights were out on the main eight blocks of Capp on Sept. 9, and the burned-out lights between 22nd and 23rd had been out since March. On the evening of Sept. 30 and again on October 6, all of the lights worked, but residents say it is an ever-changing situation. Moreover, once a light goes out, months go by without it being fixed.
“They go on and off all the time. Just because they are all on now, doesn’t mean that tomorrow they won’t be out again,” Messenger wrote in an email Tuesday.
Keeping the streetlights on continuously has not been easy for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E.) The company’s own data shows that the number of reported burnouts has increased dramatically over the past five years — by 442 percent between 2008 and 2011 alone — and last year it took the company an average of 78 days to fix a broken light.
That, says the city attorney’s office, is exactly why the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) should not permit PG & E a rate increase in January without getting a major boost in operational transparency and service levels. San Francisco currently pays the private utility $1.6 million a year for operating 19,505 of the city’s streetlights and PG&E is asking for an annual increase of $600,000. That money, it argues, is needed to upgrade infrastructure. The utilities commission will hold a hearing on PG&E’s rate increase on Oct. 14, and is slated to release its proposed decision on Nov. 19.
Over the past year, San Francisco’s 3-1-1 service center has logged 95 requests to fix broken PG&E streetlights along Capp Street between 16th and 24th, according to 3-1-1 management analyst Mathias Gibson.
Each of the 3-1-1 requests was passed along to PG&E, but response has been slow and at a meeting in early September, neighborhood watch members complained that PG&E was “stonewalling” their service requests.
PG&E spokesperson Jason King said the company received just 15 requests for streetlight service on Capp Street between 16th and 24th over the past year. When asked about the difference between PG&E and 3-1-1 numbers, King responded, “The data I have available to me considers unique outages, not the total number of calls about each individual unique outage.”
He said the company is in the second year of a five-year plan to replace equipment dating back to the mid-50s that features streetlights connected to each other on a circuit. Like a string of Christmas lights, if one goes out, the neighboring streetlights will also often go dark, he said.
“We are committed to improving service,” King said, explaining that he expects Capp Street’s s circuits to be replaced in the first quarter of next year.
“We don’t want to go through another dark winter,” Messenger said.
For its part, the City Attorney’s office has made it clear that the delays Capp Street and other residents experience are unacceptable. In a 31-page legal brief filed last November, City Attorney Dennis Herrera urged California’s Public Utility Commission to deny PG&E’s current bid to increase rates as of January 2014 because the utility has done an “inadequate and unreasonable” job when it comes to maintaining streetlights for years.
The performance is so poor, Herrera argued, that the PUC should approve PG&E’s rate increase only if the company makes sweeping improvements and agrees to pay penalty charges to customers if it “fails to meet the performance standards for two consecutive months.”
“Despite its recognition of the importance of effective and reliable streetlights, PG&E has been providing local jurisdictions with substandard streetlight services,” Herrera writes, adding that the company “makes no commitments to improve its level of service or reliability, or publicly report its performance.”
San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Scott Weiner are co-sponsoring an upcoming — to be scheduled in November — Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee hearing on streetlights.
“At a previous hearing I held at the Board of Supervisors over a year ago, PG&E pledged to update its system and improve its repair response time to be more in line with the PUC response time,” said Supervisor Weiner on Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I look forward to seeing the results of these efforts at a follow-up hearing in November…If PG&E is going to ask for a rate increase, we need to see performance results that show our streetlight system is improving.”