Streetlight problems are not unique to Detroit: MDOT says 35% of SE Michigan freeway lights are out

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Why are so many streetlights out along huge stretches of Michigan’s busiest highways? We rode around local freeways with MDOT and asked that question.

Drive along I-75,  I-96,  I-94, the Lodge and Southfield Freeways  and you’ll find yourself in the dark.  Governor Rick Snyder says he wants to turn the lights on, but that's in the city of Detroit.

“The citizens of Detroit deserve better,” said Snyder back in 2013. “They deserve better lighting. We need to make sure the lights are on.”

Many of these stretches of dark southeast Michigan highways are not just in Detroit, but deep in the suburbs.

In fact, about 35% of the street lights are out along freeways and under bridges in Oakland, Macomb Wayne and St. Clair counties, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

MDOT is responsible for maintaining about 10,500 of these lights in our region.

“When you don’t have lights, it opens the door to a lot of danger,” says Ellis Stafford, a former Michigan State Police trooper who patrolled Detroit’s dark highways. “When you can’t see beyond what your headlights show you, lives get put at risk.”

Ellis Stafford knows. He’s patrolled Detroit’s dark highways for years. He’s talking about recent nights like on the Lodge Freeway. The lights were out. A storm was sweeping through, and cars were crashing into each other, in the dark.

7 Action News drove along with MDOT to find out what’s going on, and what we discovered is shocking.

"I only have five electricians,” says Richard Antuna, who is with MDOT and is in charge of keeping the lights on in the four counties.

His entire budget is about $2.5 million. That’s not much when you consider that MDOT recently spent $9 million to replace one overpass on I-94. The department’s total budget this year is $3.6 billion dollars.

"This is 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have approximately 5,000 lights and 5,300 under bridge lights. So in the ballpark of 10,500 lights we maintain," said Antuna.

He’s also a realist, quick to admit that more than 3,600 lights are out. 

But before you blame copper thieves for all of this, Antuna says that’s just 10 percent of the problem.

"The infrastructure in Wayne County is so old, you see the majority of lights affected by that infrastructure," said Antuna.

And some of the suggested replacements are bad, too, Antuna notes. New LED lights along the Southfield Freeway look great when they work, but can go out with a surge of power. 

Antuna says he has a solution to get the lights back on and make it safer for every driver on the road.

"I wish I had 12 more electricians, 12 more bucket trucks and $12 million and I could make it happen,” he says.

All he needs now is someone in Lansing to pay attention.

7 Action News is paying attention and we plan to stay on this story until streets lights are back throughout metro Detroit highways. See what MDOT and others have to say tonight at 6 p.m.

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