City makes fitful progress in repairing school-zone caution lights

Drive by a school zone light at random in the city of New Orleans on a weekday and there’s about a 50 percent chance it works. And that’s an improvement from the last time The Lens checked.

The number of broken lights has slowly ticked down over three field surveys we’ve undertaken in the past nine months, but the city hasn’t come close to repairing them all, as a city official promised in July.

In January, when The Lens first surveyed all school lights in the city, 87 out of about 147 lights weren’t working properly. In May, it was 78. In September: 61. The overall number of active lights has dropped a bit in that time, for various reasons.

The lights are supposed to flash for two hours each morning and afternoon when school is in session to warn drivers to slow to 20 mph. Some of the lights are installed on bustling six-lane thoroughfares crossed by students on a regular basis — streets such as Carrollton Avenue, Claiborne Avenue and Chef Menteur Highway.

After each survey, The Lens has brought its findings to the attention of the City Council. A few members vowed to take action.

Told of the latest results, City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, head of the Public Works Committee, again said she would investigate.

“Safety for our school children is the highest priority,” Ramsey said. “I’ve brought this issue to the Public Works Committee twice this year and will continue to work with the Department of Public Works until all school zone lights are operational.”

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she is pleased to see the city making progress.

“However, any child will tell you a grade below 60% is a still a failing grade,” she wrote in an email.

Cantrell said school-zone infrastructure should be a priority for the city’s upcoming 2016 budgeting process, including signs, lights, and crosswalks. The city has pointed out, correctly, that the law doesn’t require school zones to have the flashing warning signs. Still, the city spent $1.3 million, including some FEMA money, to install them.

In March, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan told a council committee that cloudy weather was to blame for the poor performance of the lights. The majority rely on solar panels to recharge the batteries. But the system is designed to handle cloudy weather, according to former municipal traffic engineer Jeff Smith who helped sell the system to the city. In fact, the city explicitly asked for it in its bid specifications.

Earlier this year, The Lens found that many of the solar panels are installed improperly. They’re supposed to face south, where they get the most sunlight. In some places, panels just a couple of blocks apart face opposite directions. This could contribute to poorer performance, according to the manufacturer.

School zones bar chart

Among the other problems were lights that didn’t blink when they were supposed to, but then turned on at odd hours, such as weekend nights. The lights can be programmed remotely for up to 500 days, but in February the city said the transmitter was down. It still wasn’t working when The Lens inquired in August. City spokesman Brad Howard said then that a repeater on the Danzinger bridge that amplifies signals to eastern New Orleans also was broken. In the interim he said the city would manually program affected lights.

Recently, Howard said the city is still fixing the transmitter. The repeater has been repaired.

“Just like streetlights, school zone flashing beacons require constant attention to keep them functioning and their operational status changes on a day-to-day basis as repairs are made and other issues arise,” Howard said.

However, the city’s bid specifications said “the beacon shall have a minimum operating autonomy of 30 days.” And by comparison, the task is much smaller — the city has more than 54,000 streetlights.

(Howard no longer works for the city but Communications Director Sarah McLaughlin this week confirmed his statements.)

Making a promise to City Council

Jernigan promised to get all the school-zone lights working by the time school started, which ranges from mid-July to late August. Howard said in August, after most schools had opened, that the city was in the process of finishing repairs and inspecting all the lights. To give the city time to do that, we waited to check until after Labor Day.

There are 163 locations on the city’s list of school zone lights, but some of those school buildings are empty. And 17 lights on the city’s list have been removed for construction, or weren’t there, even though the schools are in session. Because of that, the count of active lights surveyed has changed in each of our three efforts.

We tallied 126 lights now at active schools. Of the 61 malfunctioning lights, 47 didn’t flash at all. Ten flashed faintly, indicating a low battery.

Over the summer, Howard said, the city repaired burned-out bulbs, internal clocks, and dead batteries.

Although The Lens has reported widespread outages and even mapped where the lights are broken, the city has listed far fewer broken lights. For example, in February the city said it was aware of 12 lights that were not operating correctly, well below the number we found in both January and May. Council members asked Jernigan directly if he agreed with our findings, but he avoided the question and said his department had to prioritize repairs.

Jernigan told council members that his staff relies on reports from the public to learn which lights are broken. They get that from calls to the city’s 311 line, which allows citizens to file complaints and track them.

So The Lens reported all the broken lights found last month to the city’s 311 system.

Staff writers Karen Gadbois, Charles Maldonado, Bob Marshall and Tom Thoren also participated in the survey, along with editor Steve Beatty.

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