Dickens begins his novel with the famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Were he writing today about the two American cities—Lexington, Mass. and Colorado Springs, Colo.— he might say, “It was the brightest of towns, it was the dimmest of towns.” In this case, bright and dim refer quite literally to light levels, but also to the decision making of two very different sets of civic leaders.
The brightest bulbs, literally and figuratively, are in Lexington where town Selectmen approved a plan to replace inefficient streetlights with newer energy and carbon saving models. The move will cut electricity costs from over $286,000 per year to under $70,000—a dramatic 75-percent reduction.
The cost of the retrofits will be repaid by savings in under four years, after which the town pockets those substantial benefits. Energy-efficient lights last about six times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, so the town will also cut its labor cots for streetlight maintenance by more than 80%.
On the dimmer side of this tale, Colorado Springs has turned off one third of its streetlights in an effort to save money in these times of tight government budgets. Not only has this already led to complaints about public safety, it hasn’t solved the problem.
The town is also laying off police officers and selling police helicopters, potentially aggravating the crimes those resources previously prevented and incurring more costs for taxpayers in the long run. How many cops would still be on the beat in Colorado Springs if its leaders had cut street light costs by 75 percent—without turning off a single lamp—and applied those savings to the police department?
Lexington’s moves are bright in another way. The cost to retrofit outdated fixtures and bulbs creates local jobs. And many cities are partnering with the private sector to pay for these improvements, rather than incurring big upfront costs at a time when the community chest is empty, repaying investors from the energy savings over time.