City kept in the dark

Monday, November 13, 2006
A street light on Kingshighway was burned out Thursday while others in the background were still lit. AmerenUE is responsible for streetlight maintenance, which recently has accumulated a backlog. According to Ameren figures, there are 26 streetlights on Kingshighway not functioning as of Friday. (Diane L. Wilson)

Cape Girardeau mayor finds Ameren's reaction to streetlight outages "unacceptable."


Southeast Missourian

Drivers on some of Cape Girardeau's major thoroughfares would like AmerenUE to shed some light on the situation.

"Once you start looking out for them, it's amazing how many streetlights are out around this town, especially on Kingshighway," said John Heuer, co-owner of Heuer Sons Implement Co. at 861 S. Kingshighway.

Heuer said he began making complaints about streetlights in February or March after noticing that a string of six lamps in front of his business were dark. He became further aggravated when he noticed lights were out also in front of the then newly expanded Eagles Club at 321 N. Spring St.

He initially complained to city hall, but was surprised to discover the streetlights are maintained by AmerenUE, not the public works department or Missouri Department of Transportation.

"I was shocked," he said.

Since that time, the lights Heuer complained about on Spring Street have been fixed, but the ones in front of his shop have stayed off for a period he estimates to be longer than eight months. Heuer says his primary concerns are for motorist safety, but he believes it's also an image thing.

"It looks tacky. Kingshighway is one of your busiest major streets in town, so it just looks bad. You know, I want nothing but good impressions for people who come visit," he said.

Heuer complained to Mayor Jay Knudtson who believes the light issue is a real and long-standing problem. Knudtson said he and city staff have contacted Ameren about the outages multiple times and received unsatisfactory responses.

"Right now, it's an embarrassment," he said.

"We have a situation on Mount Auburn and Kingshighway and some of our major thoroughfares that, when it gets dark, quite frankly is unacceptable. And I believe Ameren's reaction to the issue is unacceptable. I think it's a reaction that the citizens and this council and this mayor don't have to stand for."

According to Ameren figures, there are 26 streetlights on Kingshighway not functioning and nine more on Mount Auburn Road as of Friday.

City public works department figures show the majority of the Kingshighway outages were reported to Ameren at the end of September and beginning of October. City staff members have updated Ameren once per week since that time.

It is this perceived slowness to repair the problem that has Knudtson steamed.

"We have a contractual relationship with Ameren and right now there are serious questions whether or not they can hold up their end of the bargain," Knudtson said.

Cape Girardeau pays Ameren $265,000 annually for operation and maintenance as part of the contract to light the city.

Ameren officials concede it has not been a good year for streetlights, particularly those along Kingshighway. But they blame old wiring for the problem. Most of the wiring dates back to 1988 when Kingshighway was widened to four lanes.

"We do have a lot more than normal out lately," said Danny Yarbrough, construction and project supervisor for Ameren's Southeast Missouri division. "It's because of the age and a lot of construction we've had going on. We're repairing anywhere from 25 to 30 lights on average per week."

Ameren maintains about 2,200 lights in Cape Girardeau on public streets and private areas, according to city public works figures. The city of Cape Girardeau maintains 800 lights.

Whenever a light is reported out along Kingshighway, Ameren must have one of its own engineers examine it and if the problem is deemed a wiring or cable issue -- as many are -- Ameren must put the project on the schedule of ADB Utility Contractors out of St. Louis. This company has the statewide contract to do all repairs requiring boring work for Ameren.

Prior to this contract, local contractors from Cape Girardeau were employed. By contrast, the public works department uses Cotner Electric Co. for all its streetlight repairs and typically sees problems fixed within a week.

Yarbrough says for most outages an acceptable turn-around time is one or two weeks, but for wiring problems that time period can be considerably longer.

"If it's underground cable, it's going to take longer because of the scheduling and the manpower to do the boring, getting our schedule and their schedule to match together. It's going to take I'm going to say 90 days is possible for a boring job."

Yarbrough said Ameren is in the process of repairing all the wiring along Kingshighway, but must wait until burnouts occur to initiate the work. All repaired lights will be 240 volts instead of 480 volts as they were previously.

Yarbrough and Jean Mason, manager of Ameren's Southeast Missouri division, said residents also need to understand electric companies have priorities. "Street lights are not the top priority, connecting customer service, community outages, things like that are more of an emergency-type issue. There are plenty of situations that would push streetlight repair until tomorrow," Mason said.

But city councilwoman Loretta Schneider believes Ameren needs to reprioritize. " To me there is no excuse to go months without any kind of repair," she said. "It's too important to have our streets lit. Even if it is something about wiring or the transmitter, they need to be repaired.

"I've lived in Cape Girardeau all my life, and I can never remember this many lights out around town."

Ameren officials and Cape Girardeau Public Works department traffic operations engineer Kelly Green and director Tim Gramling each affirmed commitment to exchanging e-mails on outages once weekly. Both sides are confident the relationship is improving.

335-6611, extension 245

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