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DOT ready to dim the streetlights

State highways to lose about half

The state Department of Transportation will soon turn off at least half of the nearly 3,000 streetlights it operates on state highways, according to spokesman Bill Boynton.

Shutting off lights will save between $400,000 and $600,000 a year and will help the department adhere to its budget, which the Legislature reduced last year, Boynton said.

"We reviewed all the highway lighting to determine which ones are essential for highway safety, which ones are no longer necessary, and which ones can be effectively and efficiently turned off," Boynton said.

The department had hoped to turn the lights off last month, Boynton said, but none have been shut off yet. Engineers are still completing an inventory of each streetlight DOT operates in the state.

That process began after lawmakers reduced DOT's budget last year, Boynton said. Its budget for utility costs was cut from $1.9 million during the 2010-2011 fiscal year to $953,000 for 2011-2012, he said. The utility budget was further cut to $815,000 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

It costs about $30 per month to run a single streetlight, Boynton said.

Additional utility savings came from closing six of the department's 93 patrol facilities around the state and finding ways to save energy at the remaining facilities, Boynton said.

Officials in every city and town received a letter from Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement in April, informing them that engineers were studying their streetlights.

"Given improvements in vehicle headlight performance and sign reflectivity, and given the need to reduce costs, the department, in accordance with safety standards, is proposing to discontinue some of these streetlights," Clement wrote.

Some cities and towns have already received reports detailing how many lights engineers propose turning off. Others will hear from DOT in the coming weeks and months, Boynton said.

DOT proposes eliminating all lights on bridges, interstate on-ramps and interstate underpasses, according to guidelines used for the streetlight inventory. Three lights would remain at interstate off-ramps, and one light would be kept on at intersections with traffic signals. Intersections with raised islands or "slip lanes" for turns would each have one light. Lights would be turned off at intersections with no traffic signals.

Hillsboro Selectman Russell Galpin said he was concerned after reading the report for his town. DOT proposes shutting off 29 streetlights in Hillsboro, while continuing to operate 16. Galpin said he agrees with the need to turn off some lights. But others, like the light at the intersection of Route 9 and Route 31, provide much-needed safety, he said.

"They've had multiple accidents at that junction and at least one fatality out there," Galpin said. "And any corner that's had that many accidents, and they're going to take the lights off it, too?"

Rep. Will Smith, who chairs a House Finance Committee division responsible for the Department of Transportation, said he trusts Clement to make his department more efficient under a reduced budget.

"And I don't think that he has any intention of doing anything that would be involved with reducing safety," said Smith, a New Castle Republican.

Concord has not yet received a final report from DOT about its lights, said Rob Mack, the city's traffic engineer. Mack said the city's Traffic Operations Committee will discuss the state's proposal when it arrives. The city already controls a number of streetlights on state highways through its urban compact with the state, Mack said, including those on Loudon Road.

Bow Selectman Harry Judd said he's pleased the state is shutting off streetlights; Bow turned off most of its own lights about five years ago.

"We had our police chief and our fire chief go to every intersection where there was a streetlight and make a determination of which ones were critical to public safety," Judd said. "We turned every other one off."

The state's report on Bow is not complete, but proposes turning off some of the lights along Interstate 89 and its exits in town. A small number of residents were upset when Bow shut off about 75 percent of its lights, Judd said, but others "like being able to see the stars at night."

Boynton said DOT officials will meet with cities and towns to address concerns about specific lights.

"Or, again, in some situations they may make a legitimate case for keeping some on," he said. "So we'll certainly listen to them. It's not take it or leave it."

At a recent meeting with officials from Keene, the department agreed to keep operating some of the city's streetlights, Boynton said.

In other cases, cities and towns will have to assume the cost of paying for lights they want to keep. Local officials may worry about pedestrian safety, Boynton said, but DOT is concerned with vehicle safety on state-operated highways.

"Some of these lights over the years have been put in place more out of want than out of need," Boynton said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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