People say bad street-lighting contributes to fatalities and violence in some parts of Albuquerque—and national studies bear this out. There’s plenty of finger-pointing, but when it comes to info about broken streetlights, the public’s still mostly in the dark.
Blocks of the same busted streetlights have plagued some parts of Albuquerque for as long as anyone can remember, especially in the International District. Reynaluz Juarez is a longtime resident here, and the co-coordinator of the area’s Healthy Communities Coalition. "It’s symbolic when you think and you have conversations about: What does a ghetto look like? Or what does a barrio look like?" she said. "But, you know, those of us who live here and know our neighbors, we see it in a very different way."
People in the district have been trying for years to turn the lights on, but the process is confusing, and even just basic info about these taxpayer-funded lights is hard or impossible to get.
"It feels like a community where disinvestment is OK, and it’s not. It’s not OK," Juarez said.
Most of the lights in this area are owned by PNM, the state’s largest electric utility. Others are owned by the city. And the city pays PNM’s electricity bill for all of them each month.
At KUNM, we wanted to find out whether repairs were happening equitably across neighborhoods—or happening at all. But no one would provide information about where broken streetlights are, how long they’d been down or when they’d be fixed.
Neighborhood volunteers started doing this municipal mapping work themselves years ago. Bernadette Hardy is the coalition’s other coordinator. "Periodically, we go out at night, and we call it midnight drives," she said. "We usually have two people, so one driving, one mapping them out."
Then they report the lights that aren’t working. The volunteer surveying is not a one-time deal, though, Hardy said. "But we have to keep up with it," she said, "because we want to see if any changes have happened, if they’ve turned them on or fixed them."
The city of Albuquerque’s most recent contract with PNM says lights are supposed to be repaired pretty quickly—within 72 hours in most cases. We don’t know whether PNM is holding up its end of that deal—or if the city is keeping track.
We kept asking for the data, thinking we could map it ourselves. After some wrangling, a city official sent along an outdated survey they had. PNM refused to share the detailed info the company keeps and refused to do interviews. It’s been going on like this for months.
Sarah Ijadi is with the Mid-Region Council of Governments and Bernalillo County’s Healthy Here Initiative. "That makes no sense to me, that it’s not available to communities, individuals and neighborhood associations," she said. "It can be mapped. That would at least make it easier for community members to inform their city government of what lights are working or not, whether they’re PNM or city of Albuquerque lights."
PNM has a map like that, showing broken streetlights and their repair schedule. At least that’s what City Councilor Pat Davis said, who told us he once laid eyes on it. But PNM would never confirm this, and we couldn’t find the map anywhere. PNM’s a private company and so not subject to the state’s open records laws.
At a news conference in the International District this spring, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller went up in a cherry-picker and turned on an LED streetlight mid-afternoon. "It’s been a long road. There’s lots of long roads that we’ve all been down on different ways," he said. "But I want to tell you about this particular one: The quest for lighting."
Politicians gave speeches about partnerships and the future. PNM’s CEO Patricia Vincent-Collawn spoke, too. "And you know as a member of our community—we live and we work here—it’s important to us that we have good lighting, and that safety is a priority," she said.
It was a chance for me to get some answers maybe from PNM. As soon as the press conference was over, Vincent-Collawn was surrounded by aids and spokespeople, who shot me down as she hurried away. I kept trying. No dice.
The next night, I drove the area myself—like the neighbors do—to see, after all that, what lights were working. I spotted long stretches of dark lamps over unlit major streets.
I stopped at a memorial for a young boy, and I saw new paper hearts and fresh flowers tucked into the chain-link fence. He was killed almost two years ago by cars in the dark under broken streetlights.