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Kansas City will upgrade 84,000 streetlights to LEDs, its first big change in decades

A police cruiser is seen with red lights glowing as it drives down a street at night. There are a few cars on the street, and their tail lights can be seen.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A police cruiser and other traffic along 63rd Street drive in and out of the shadows created by Kansas City's current streetlight system.

The Public Works Department says switching to LED lights will help the city save $27 million over 10 years.

The orange glow of streetlights illuminating hundreds of streets across Kansas City will soon get a major upgrade.

By a vote of 11-1, the Kansas City Council on Thursday passed an ordinance for a contract to replace 84,000 city streetlights with LED bulbs and fixtures. The city will contract with local company Black & McDonald to do the streetlight replacement, which will begin this May and is expected to take three years to complete.

Councilman Brandon Ellington cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he wanted the Public Works Department to handle the replacement rather than a private company.

Maggie Green, media relations manager for Kansas City, said the project is a wise investment that will lead to reduced maintenance and energy costs and a reduction in carbon emissions.

“We're trying to be as green of a city as we can be, even the greenest city,” she said. “I think that this accomplishes a lot of things at once: we are upgrading our infrastructure, we're making it more energy efficient, we're saving costs, saving taxpayer dollars, maintenance costs.”

Kansas City joins other cities, including Seattle, Las Vegas, Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, that have converted their streetlights to LED. It will mark the first time Kansas City has conducted a citywide upgrade of its streetlight system since 1997. Kansas City has a total of 98,000 streetlights.

The push for LED streetlights is one of several projects and initiatives the city is pursuing to address the impacts of climate change and become a more environmentally friendly city. Those efforts include replacing the city’s municipal fleet with electric vehicles, adding a 2,000-acre solar farm at Kansas City International Airport and declaring a climate emergency in the city.

The city began replacing some streetlights with LED bulbs in 2011, but that occurred in small increments. So far, 6,800 streetlights in Kansas City have been replaced, with the most recent improvements taking place along Barry Road, Linwood Boulevard, Bannister Road and Chouteau Trafficway.

“What is new is, and what the city manager kind of brought a really big emphasis (on) was like, ‘Let's do this city wide,’” Green said, referring to City Manager Brian Platt.

Right now, most of the city’s streetlights are high pressure sodium, which emits an orange-yellow glow at night. According to a news release from the city, high pressure sodium lights cost $13 million a year to operate: electricity costs run about $7 million and maintenance costs about $6 million. These standard bulbs must be replaced every four years.

LED lights can be identified by their whiter, and often brighter, glow. They are widely regarded as more energy efficient than high pressure sodium bulbs. Earlier this week, the Public Works Department, in a presentation to the Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee, said switching to LED lights will help save $27 million over 10 years.

LED lights also last longer than standard high-pressure sodium bulbs — 10 years or more compared to the four-year lifespan of standard street lights. LED lights also use up to 50% less energy.

Converting to LED would cost about $21 million, according to city estimates. The city projects that savings from the project will increase from an estimated $212,000 in the first year of construction to $2.5 million in the third and final year, according to the Public Works presentation. The city is projected to save about $3 million a year once the conversion is completed.

Public Works projected that the city would save 2,500 tons in carbon emissions in the first year. That would grow to 20,000 after three years. Once the conversion is complete, Public Works projects the city will save 28,700 tons in carbon emissions each year.

Environmental groups have concerns

As the city embarks on the LED project, Mary Nemecek, conservation chair for the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City, said it also needs to consider other environmental impacts from implementing LED lights citywide.

“We absolutely support their moving in the direction of LEDs,” Nemecek said. “But there is more of the picture there on how the change to LEDs impacts the environment. Obviously, the energy savings is very good. But we need people to be aware of the impact that it has on the rest of the environment.”

Nemecek said she was concerned about the impact that bright LED lights could have on drivers in certain areas of the city at night. A resident of Kansas City’s Northland, Nemecek recalls driving at night down a stretch of Barry Road that had been outfitted with LED street lights. The roads were wet, and the bright streetlights caused glare on the streets as she drove.

“It creates dark corners, … and it was especially dramatic because of the wet streets,” Nemecek said. “Had there been a child or a deer on the side of the road, I don't know that I could have seen them.”

Deann Gregory, a Kansas City resident and a member of the local Sierra Club, said switching to LED lights will also increase the city’s skyglow, which is the brightness of the night sky in urban areas caused by light pollution.

She said increased skyglow could affect the flocks of birds that migrate through Kansas City and Missouri. One study from Cornell University ranked Kansas City seventh in the spring and eighth in the fall for the most dangerous cities for birds in the U.S.

“We'll still have our existing skyglow from all of our commercial lots, which is significant,” Gregory said. “And we will also have an increase in skyglow because we are such a large city with so many streetlights.”

To combat the more harmful impacts of increased light pollution on wildlife and people, Gregory said the city should consider using LED lights with a color temperature no higher than 3,000 Kelvin, or using dimmers.

“That increase in skyglow, the increase in the harmful impacts to not just birds but all wildlife and humans, can be greatly and easily mitigated while we save money,” Gregory said. “That's what Kansas City should do.”

As the city embarks on the project, Green, the city spokeswoman, said the city is testing different light and color temperature options, including using systems to dim LED lights. She said officials are testing different color temperatures in pilot locations that have already been outfitted with LED lights.

“Part of what our team … will continue to look at is like what that feedback has been so far, and what makes the most sense for a residential street versus a major road,” Green said. “And is there a scenario where we put a lesser, lower strength LED on a neighborhood street and then a higher strength LED one on a larger roadway.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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