Lighting along the U.S. 31 bridges into Decatur, gap-toothed and dim, is unlikely to improve soon as the mayor and Decatur Utilities are at odds over who should perform repairs and upgrades.
The 78 pole lights along the bridges and causeway were installed in 1998 by the Alabama Department of Transportation, which owns them, and the city took over responsibility for maintenance. Since 2002, DU has maintained the lights, charging the city for its time and materials.
For Decatur Utilities and its general manager, Ray Hardin, the last straw was a Feb. 1 accident that seriously injured four workers at the north end of the southbound bridge. The driver of a Chevrolet Silverado, who has not been apprehended, plowed into DU pickups which in turn collided with a boom truck. Two of the workers were ejected from the boom bucket, and two others were injured at street level. All four were there to work on the bridge lights.
DU, Hardin said, will no longer maintain the lights.
“We’ve been saying for many years that this is a system that needs to be looked at for replacement,” Hardin said last week. “This has been a decision that we’ve been contemplating for quite some time. Certainly the near-fatal accident that happened out there with our four employees moved that decision up.”
Shortly after the wreck, Hardin sent an email to Mayor Tab Bowling. He began by outlining the short-term problems caused for DU by the accident.
“The incident that occurred on Feb. 1, 2020, left four employees injured, totaled two pickup trucks, and has left one of our bucket trucks out of service. Certainly, in the near term, we are not equipped to perform the maintenance,” Hardin wrote in the Feb. 18 email.
His email did not stop there.
“However, this event has led us to reevaluate our willingness to continue to maintain and repair the lighting system. Due to safety concerns for our employees and the increasing maintenance requirements of obsolete facilities, we have made the decision that DU will no longer provide maintenance and repair to these lights,” Hardin wrote.
The email was not well-received by Mayor Tab Bowling. The following day, Bowling held a press conference blasting DU for its failure to stop sanitary sewer overflows. Asked after the press conference whether his decision not to invite DU officials to the conference suggested an adversarial relationship between the city and the utility it owns, Bowling immediately brought up Hardin’s email.
“DU does lighting maintenance throughout our city. That’s one of their roles,” Bowling said. “I received an email yesterday. There are certain community partners we have where you come and you knock on my door if you have a concern about the city. … Instead I get an email from DU, from the general manager, Ray Hardin, telling me they’ll no longer do light maintenance on those fixtures on our bridge. … What about professional courtesy?”
Bowling complained that DU was focused on a single accident on the bridge, even though it continued to perform lighting maintenance along other roads in the city.
“Have we got our priorities out of line?” Bowling said.
Hardin said the mayor’s response was disingenuous.
For one thing, Hardin said last week, DU has been recommending replacement of the obsolete lighting system for years, including in a 2015 letter he attached to the email he sent to Bowling. That letter noted that the light fixtures were at the end of their lifespan and said the city had paid DU $38,000 to maintain them over the previous five years. DU was also struggling, he wrote in the 2015 letter, with cable installed inside the bridge and junction boxes.
From fiscal 2016 to Jan. 31 of this year, according to DU records, it has billed the city $28,258.57 to maintain the lights, not including electricity costs.
For another thing, Hardin said, DU’s role in maintaining the state-owned bridge lights is distinct from its role in maintaining other streetlights. The bridge lights are on a separate meter, not part of the city’s street light account with DU. And unlike other lights, DU merely acts as a contractor for the city on the bridge lights.
“We’re certainly offering to help identify qualified contractors that could do the repair work as we’ve done over the years,” Hardin said.
Asked last week why many of the lights on the northbound bridge are not working, DU spokesman Joe Holmes reiterated the utility’s refusal to continue maintenance.
“All repairs we were aware of were completed that weekend before the accident happened. Any lights that have gone out since then will need to be looked at by the new contractor the city selects to determine the cause,” he said.
Bowling last week said he thinks the solution is to replace the fixtures and install LED lights, which generate more light and use less energy. His frustration, he said, is that DU has not done that.
“We would have been good with going back with LEDs this time, had they just talked with me about it,” he said, referring to the maintenance that was taking place at the time of the accident. “It’s a no-brainer. Put the LEDs up. The pole and all that remains the same. It’s just a retrofit. It’s very simple. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done.”
Perceptions of Decatur
John Seymour, chairman of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, expresses no opinion on who should improve lighting along the bridge and causeway, but he has a strong opinion on its significance in improving perceptions of Decatur.
“It’s very important. We’ve had a couple of investors that have mentioned to us recently that we need to work on the entrance of our city. First impressions, you know. We need to make it more aesthetically pleasing,” Seymour said. “We’ve talked about things we can do to make it more appealing as you come into the city, and obviously lighting is a big part of that.”
He said the most common route for prospective residential and commercial developers visiting the city brings them over the bridge, whether they are coming from Huntsville, Huntsville International Airport or Nashville.
“It’s a very popular route for coming into the city,” Seymour said.
According to ALDOT data compiled in 2018, an average of 47,872 vehicles cross the bridge daily.
As the standoff continues between the mayor and Hardin, two of the injured DU employees are back to work on limited duty. Two others are at the beginning of months of rehabilitation, Holmes said.