Thirty minutes after sunset at the corner of Southwest 112th Avenue and 165th Terrace, Susan Blake explains why she thinks Miami-Dade used to do a much better job of mitigating nightfall here.
Standing under a county streetlight with a “light-emitting diode” bulb on the east side of 112th, Blake points to what she sees as a gully of darkness between the new LED bulb above her and another one hanging about 200 feet away.
“The light stops right there. The wall is dark. Then there’s light again,” Blake said, pointing to the shadows obscuring parts of the sidewalk and a concrete wall at the edge of a home’s property line. “Fifty feet from the light pole, it’s dark.”
Blake is leading a push that has temporarily halted Miami-Dade’s replacement of thousands of suburban streetlights powered by traditional sodium-vapor bulbs with the more energy efficient LED bulbs. County administrators insist the complaints are based on misconceptions about light and dark, with the sharper LED illumination drawing more attention to coverage gaps that have always existed.
“The visibility of the lights is actually better. ... You’re able to detect colors better, you’re able to see what people look like better,” Lorena Guerra-Macias, administrator of the county’s lighting districts, told commissioners in June. “The difference in color is making them stand out.”
The Parks Department, which runs lighting districts, this week delivered the results of a “photometric” audit declaring the new LED bulbs brighter alternatives to the sodium-vapor bulbs. County commissioners officially received the report Tuesday, but took no action. That was enough for Parks to resume the original installation plan, but with more attention toward resolving complaints about poor lighting, said Michael Spring, the senior county administrator who oversees Parks. “We’ll follow up with Commissioners to address any areas of concerns they may still have,” Spring wrote.
Commissioners voted June 4 to suspend LED installations until Miami-Dade could produce the audit, which became public Monday afternoon. It analyzed nine lighting districts where the LED switch has already been made and declared that “the overall square footage being covered by the newly installed LED fixture is greater than its [sodium-vapor] counterpart.”
The conclusions run counter to anecdotal evidence shared by commissioners ahead of that June 4 vote to halt the LED installations. “I’m telling you: There are dark spots,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said before the unanimous vote, pointing to lights recently switched in his neighborhood. “You used to be able to look down the street and see what was going on. Now it’s different.” Commissioner Joe Martinez said: “It seems like we may be sacrificing safety for costs.”
LED bulbs burn less electricity, and last about 10 times longer than the sodium lights, according to Florida Power and Light, which has the county contract to install the new lights. New York announced in June it expected to save $3 million a year in power bills with more than 10,000 new LED streetlights, and Cleveland announced this month a plan to spend $35 million replacing more than 60,000 street lamps with LED bulbs.
In Miami-Dade, the LED swaps involve 918 special taxing districts set up to cover certain municipal functions outside city limits, including landscaping and street lights. FPL started the work earlier this year, with notifications to nearly 60,000 residents about the lighting change. Miami-Dade did not provide a cost for the switch, but Parks said any increases in taxing-district bills beyond 5 percent to cover the project would need to go before commissioners for a vote.
In Blake’s neighborhood, Southwest 112th Avenue offers a testing ground for the controversy because the conversion halted before crews could swap out bulbs on both sides of the street. The western side still has the sodium-vapor lamps, and Blake sees the contrast as prime evidence that the older models provide better lighting.
“The sodium bulbs connected light to light,” she said, standing under one of the LED streetlights. “This one just points straight down.”
Rene Oppeneiger, who lives with Blake, said the switch earlier in the summer caught him off guard, when suddenly landmarks for their evening stroll were hard to spot.
“I looked, and I couldn’t see the wall,” he said. “I thought there must be a light out.”
The LED lights do change the kind of light emitted. LED makers tout the limited range of lights coming out of the modern streetlights, with a 180-degree field to the street, rather than the 360 degrees emitted from the rounder sodium-vapor globes. That flatter field is designed to reduce lighting of the sky, which the Parks report notes “affects bird migration and impedes star gazing.”
Ron Bieber, who runs a lighting company in Beverly Hills, California, said the technical specifications of the sodium and LED lights don’t always tell the entire story.
“It is quite possible that one light fixture with a higher [brightness] actually distributes the illumination in a pattern that is not well-suited to a specific application,” said Bieber, whose company, Sterling Innovations, is not involved in Miami-Dade’s light program. Depending on the design of the lamp, he said, the brighter bulb could be “much less suitable” for a particular location.
But after reading the Parks report, Bieber said it’s obvious the LED lights are an upgrade.
“From the attached isocurves that you sent, I clearly see that the LED fixtures are superior as compared to the [sodium-vapor] fixtures,” he wrote of the technical drawings produced by Parks showing ranges of light from the new and old equipment. “The poles are simply located too far apart to cover a substantial portion of the area between the fixtures. However, that issue was even worse with the previous ... fixtures, which left an even larger dark gap between them.”
More than two dozen cities in South Florida are already using LED lights, including Miami, Miami Lakes and Hollywood. Parks said some dark spots can be addressed by pruning trees or adjusting the angle of some streetlights. The report asks for permission to continue the LED switch, while addressing complaints on a case-by-case basis.
For Robert Holley, who runs a neighborhood crime watch program that includes 112th Street, the light switch became alarming once he realized the darkness seemed more prevalent
“On certain streets, it’s profound,” Holley said. “The street looked like a dark alley to me. With just pinpricks for light.”