Daryl Grigsby is the public works director for the City of San Luis Obispo. This letter has been edited for clarity. 


Today, Mustang News published an article titled, “Despite city goal, only one new street light is to be installed in 2019.” The article accurately pointed out the need for additional street lighting in areas around Cal Poly and noted that one light per year would not make an appreciable difference. A source in the article also said Mayor Harmon and the City Council were just trying to “appeal to people … without fixing the problem.”

The City appreciates the discussion and attention to this issue; as pedestrian safety is a top priority for the City of San Luis Obispo. The more aware everyone is of safe walking conditions, the more we all can take collective responsibility for community safety.

As background information, here is some additional information on the street light installations in San Luis Obispo.

Every two years, the City of San Luis Obispo solicits public input to determine citizen priorities to include in its two-year Financial Plan. At the Community Forum for the 2017-19 Financial Plan, several Cal Poly students advocated for additional street lighting in neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. In response to the student requests, the Council allocated $20,000 per year for a new Street Light program. When this amount was established, it was anticipated that amount could install one or two lights per year – depending upon adjacent electrical connections, the need for poles and foundation, and other issues. Council allocated this additional funding in the light of many additional city needs, including resources for Police and Fire, maintenance of parks and streets, and other city services.

As staff investigated the actual field conditions for street light installations, they found the approximate cost of installing a street light pole and foundation is $15,000. In addition, sidewalk tear out and replacement is another $10,000. Design and the permitting costs for PG&E bring the total cost to approximately $30,000 per location. Since the cost of one light exceeded the $20,000 per year, during a later budget hearing the City Council added an additional $30,000 to the Street Light program.

The first light to be installed under the Council-approved Street Light Program is a light at Hathaway and Via Carta. This light is currently out to bid, and, barring unforeseen conditions, should begin construction in April 2019. In addition, with the additional funding provided by the City Council, city staff have begun design on the second light at Grand Avenue and Fredericks Street with the goal for installation to occur before the end of 2019.

Here are some important considerations that impact the Street Light Installation Program:

Much of the city was developed before existing City Engineering Standards were adopted and therefore many lights are spaced further apart than the 200 to 250 feet per pole as established by current standards. These standards, like many societal expectations, change over the years – and – it is fiscally impossible for cities to retrofit entire areas to match existing standards. For example, it is estimated, and this is very rough, that 1,000 to 2,000 additional lights would be required to bring the city up to standards. At $30,000 per light, that’s about $30 to $60 million to bring the lighting up to today’s standard throughout the city. Currently, the City’s General Fund Capital budget is about $8 million per year – and that is for all infrastructure needs – streets, parks, sidewalks, open space, trees, city facilities, police and fire stations and other assets.

“At $30,000 per light, that’s about $30 to $60 million to bring the lighting up to today’s standard throughout the city”

The Council was well aware that the program would not match the need. The Street Light program was intended to illuminate the highest priority areas as funds were available.

Another factor in street light illumination is that the City does follow a public process when changes impact adjacent residents. Relative to street lights, it is not uncommon for nearby residents to oppose installation due to concerns of light impacts on their homes in the late evening.

The City has another “competing” ordinance with respect to our Night Sky. This ordinance is intended to protect native nocturnal species as well as allow residents enjoyment of the nighttime sky. As you can see, there are many competing interests the Council and staff must balance when implementing new programs.

Recognizing this need could not be met exclusively through capital project construction, the Council also approved two other initiatives. One, the Police Department conducted an assessment utilizing principles of Public Safety through Environmental Design, and, suggested recommendations to Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) and residences in some of the impacted areas. Second, the City’s Urban Forest staff completed tree trimming in areas where tree growth limited illumination for pedestrians.

Finally, the City is currently developing ideas to enhance public safety in areas impacted by poor illumination. Since we know it is fiscally impossible to provide street lights at every needed location – city staff is considering ideas where partnerships with neighbors, students, and pedestrian advocates could enhance pedestrian safety through collaborative, low-cost measures. We are looking at other options, such as pedestrian-scale solar lighting, a ‘light give-away program’ similar to the successful program wherein the city provides lights for cyclists, and other ideas. If students have ideas on how community education, personal lighting devices, or other measures could assist in addressing this problem, feel free to contact the City’s Active Transportation Manager, Adam Fukushima, at afukushima@slocity.org.

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