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City in Stalemate on Traffic Lights

Because of a dispute over who will pay, Los Angeles has failed to meet a state requirement to update the signals.

September 08, 2004|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The city of Los Angeles has fallen behind in meeting a two-year-old requirement by the state to replace old and burned-out traffic signals with energy-efficient lights amid a squabble over who should pay for the work, officials said Tuesday.

The delay has forced officials to scramble to avoid having some signals go dark and to head off potential legal action by the state.

"It's inexcusable that the city has dragged its feet for two years on complying with the requirement to retrofit traffic signals," said Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the council's transportation committee and a candidate for mayor.

City transportation executives say they have, so far, failed to persuade the city Department of Water and Power to pay the $20 million or more it would cost to convert the city's 180,000 incandescent traffic signals to light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

As a result, Wayne Tanda, general manager of the city Department of Transportation, has asked the state for more time to comply, arguing that the city will run out of legal replacements for signals in four months.

"The legal restrictions in purchasing bulbs, coupled with the current lack of funding to purchase LEDs, presents a traffic safety crisis," Tanda wrote recently to the California Energy Commission. "Without [using] incandescent bulbs for an interim period, traffic signals would be dark, and there would be significant traffic safety consequences."

Tanda said Tuesday that the issue remains unresolved, but he will do everything he can to keep signals operating, "even if I have to go to the retail stores to buy lightbulbs."

The law says that as incandescent traffic signals are replaced and older stocks of incandescent bulbs are used up, cities must install LED signals, which use 90% less electricity and last five to 10 times longer, although they can be much more expensive to buy.

State officials said a traffic signal manufactured on or after March 1, 2003, and sold in California must meet efficiency standards that rule out anything but LEDs.

"Despite the long lead time that the city has had to purchase LED equipment, since the standards were adopted in February 2002 and became effective in March 2003, there seems to have been little progress," wrote William J. Keese, chairman of the California Energy Commission, in a July 30 letter.

Even though LEDs were installed at some intersections under a pilot program, "the city is in technical violation of the law," Tanda said.

Seventy percent of California cities have converted most or all of their incandescent bulbs to LEDs, according to state officials. But Los Angeles officials have never decided how to raise the necessary money.

The dispute over who should pay for the conversion centers on the fact that the electricity for Los Angeles' traffic signals is provided free by the Department of Water and Power. The agency has resisted requests to foot the $20-million bill for the conversion.

Tanda has argued that the energy savings from LEDs would pay for the cost of the conversion in less than three years, and would free up electricity that could then be sold by the DWP for $5.6 million annually.

Even so, Tanda said, DWP officials "have not agreed that energy savings alone would be able to finance a conversion."

DWP officials have estimated that the conversion could end up costing $67.5 million, and they are concerned about problems identified in a pilot program.

The pilot project in 2001 had the DWP put up $7.9 million to install 30,000 LEDs, but most of the changed lights were for pedestrian signals. City officials later discovered the new state law does not require pedestrian signals to use LEDs.

In addition, 10% of the LEDs installed during the pilot program failed during the first year of operation.

Tanda met Tuesday with Henry Martinez, the DWP's acting general manager, to press the case. "We are looking into their proposal," said Carol Tucker, a DWP spokeswoman.

But City Council members frustrated by the dispute and delays have called utility executives into a committee meeting today to explain their position.

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