Lights Out: IH-35 drivers in the dark

As each pole whizzed by his car, Gary Rodge was keeping count.

“Two lights out.”
“One light out.”
“That one is dark.”
“One on.  Two off.”

For several weeks, he and his wife Jacque have been house sitting for a friend and made the trek from San Antonio to Austin 3-4 times a week.  The darkness became too much to ignore.

“There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it,”  said Rodge.  “It was not until I actually took a count of how many were out that I was so astonished.”

Rodge decided he would keep track of which lights were out and let the Texas Department of Transportation know the bulbs needed changing. but the simple act of being a good citizen only brought him questions and confusion.

Rodge is not the only one to make the trip.  We also traveled the 180-mile run from Waco to Austin to San Antonio.

IH 35 from Round Rock to Waco (2013)
Light Condition Total Crashes
Daylight  978
Dawn  11
Dark, Not Lighted  206
Dark, Lighted  141
Dusk  12
Dark, Unknown Lighting  2
Total 1,350
IH 35 from Round Rock to Waco (2012)
Light Condition Total Crashes
Daylight  918
Dawn  9
Dark, Not Lighted  168
Dark, Lighted  129
Dusk  13
Dark, Unknown Lighting  7
Total 1,245

Hit or Miss

In 2012 and 2013, there were more than 5,000 crashes on the 180-mile stretch of I-35 between Waco and San Antonio, yet one of the most obvious safety measures on the interstate remains dormant and unused in many locations.

“Not having all the lights on makes no sense to me at all,” said Rodge who typically makes his drive before the sun comes up and after it goes down.

“When it is raining or you are in the fog, all you are looking for is white lines.”

There are 463 light poles between Austin and San Antonio along the I-35 median. Each pole has two mounted lights. Depending on the model and when it was installed, TxDOT estimates each pole cost an average of $3,500 to erect.

On one night in late December, 300 of the 926 bulbs, nearly one-third, were not illuminated.

In many stretches, the dark bulbs come in no particular pattern, but there are other stretches where light poles are out one after another. One of the darkest stretches is in San Marcos where 11 consecutive poles are dark followed by another 16 dark just a little further along.

As Rodge pointed out, the dark stretches are hardly in isolated areas, “It is not like there isn’t anything going on here. It is right by the outlet mall.”

It’s not all dark on the I-35 corridor though.  The cities with the most lights on are New Braunfels, Kyle and Buda, and they’re all maintained by TxDOT.

Maintenance Agreement

In rural areas and in small cities, TxDOT pays for the installation and illumination of highway lights, but for most cities with a population above 50,000, TxDOT has a fairly standard agreement when it comes to highway illumination.  TxDOT pays for the installation of the poles, and the city pays for the illumination and maintenance.

The agreement also says if the city does not do a satisfactory job maintaining the lights, TxDOT will do the needed work and send the bill to the city.

San Marcos signed that agreement in 1990.  At that time the city’s population was around 28,000 people.  Now there re more than 50,000 people living in the area.

“It renews every two years automatically,” said Greg Troxell, the assistant director of public services for San Marcos Electric Utility.

Even with such an agreement in place, Troxell admits the city has been well aware of the dark lights along I-35 near the outlet malls.

“I have been here a little over a year,” said Troxel, “and I know they have been off and on.”

The irregular pattern of dark lights Rodge noticed can be attributed to bulbs burning out and simply needing to be replaced., but the long stretch of dark lights in San Marcos is due to a more complex problem.

“The wire has been corroded, and it is approximately 22 years old and needs to be replaced,” said Troxell as he held several pieces of wire pulled from a pole.  The protective, plastic covering over the wire had been withered away, likely chewed up by rats.

“When you have this kind of failure, obviously you are going to lose your lights,” Troxel explained.

Replacing the worn our infrastructure has not been an option due to budget concerns in past years.

IH 35 from San Antonio to Austin (2013)
Light Condition Total Crashes
Daylight  813
Dawn  13
Dark, Not Lighted  91
Dark, Lighted  226
Dusk  12
Dark, Unknown Lighting  3
Unknown  2
Other  2
Total 1,162
IH 35 from San Antonio to Austin (2012)
Light Condition Total Crashes
Daylight  858
Dawn  14
Dark, Not Lighted  135
Dark, Lighted  299
Dusk  14
Dark, Unknown Lighting  3
Total 1,323

Improvements Planned

Nowhere in the agreement is a timeframe for repairs outlined and TxDOT has not billed San Marcos for any improvements.

In fact, at no time in recent memory have they had to take that step anywhere in the state. TxDOT declined an interview but did communicate by email and stated, “We work with cities to address these issues in a reasonable timeframe. We haven’t had to step in yet.”

In San Marcos, there is already a plan to flip the power back on.  “We are going to spend $400,000 this fiscal year re-lamping the entire stretch from the Blanco River to the outlet malls,” said Troxell.

Troxell says the they are currently pulling power cables, and the project is expected to be complete sometime around the beginning of spring.

As for bulbs that simply burn out, replacement is an easier task but still not an immediate fix.  The project also includes LED lights which could potentially cut energy costs in half.  San Marcos currently pays about $15,000 a year in energy costs to illuminate their roads.

The city must shutdown lanes of traffic and prefers to change multiple bulbs at one time rather than close the road each time a single bulb burns out on the interstate. They also do not own the necessary tools to do it themselves.

“We do not own that equipment. We contract that out,” said Troxell who still believes, despite budget and staff restraints, the city could be better about replacing bad bulbs.

“It is not cost effective to do one or two at a time,” he said. “That is not to say we haven’t fallen behind on that.”

Austin Energy

The story is similar within the city limits of Austin where several lights on the interstate are out including many downtown.

Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson for Austin Energy, says they will wait until a substantial amount of lights burn out before taking the steps necessary for replacement.

“It is not efficient,” said Cordova about changing bulbs as they go out. “It causes a lot of transportation issues, and we have to get the proper permits.”

There are 70,000 street lights on the grid for the entire city, including side streets.  In 2013, Austin Energy received 7,000 calls for service involving street lights through 3-1-1.  Lights needing replacement away from the highways are typically handled within three days according to Cordova.

The average Austin Energy customer pays approximately $1 per month to help fund the city’s street illumination.

Construction Concerns

In other areas where lights are out for long stretches, construction projects are the reason for the darkness.  Lights are out for miles through Salado and Belton where a project to widen I-35 is taking place.

Schertz also has shut off power while active construction along the roadway is happening.

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