Quit keeping us in the dark on state Route 16

Many lights along SR-16 in Tacoma are dark

While a few lights are out on the Gig Harbor side, most of the lights along SR-16 between the Jackson Avenue overpass and the South 19th street overpass in Tacoma are not working.
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While a few lights are out on the Gig Harbor side, most of the lights along SR-16 between the Jackson Avenue overpass and the South 19th street overpass in Tacoma are not working.

Streetlights do more than illuminate the dark corners of urban neighborhoods during the long nights of winter. They also radiate a confident message to first-time visitors and long-term residents alike. They’re beacons of proud communities that want to see and to be seen.

One local official gave an apt description while explaining a $5 million streetlight project in Tacoma. It will switch 95 percent of the city from old, orange sodium-vapor bulbs to the welcoming moonlight glow of LED fixtures by the end of this year.

“We’re a first-class city,” assistant public works manager Leigh Starr told News Tribune reporter Craig Sailor, “and there’s an expectation that we look like a first-class city.”

Unfortunately, our surrounding highways don’t meet that first-class standard — particularly state Route 16 between Tacoma and Gig Harbor.

State transportation officials ought to shine more light on this corridor as they tackle the larger problem of inoperative roadway lights around Washington. Meantime, the public needs to be on high alert — to driving conditions that are dangerously dim, and to criminals who are damaging our road-safety infrastructure.

As reported last month in the TNT’s Traffic Q&A column, this stretch of SR16 has been hit hard by thieves scrapping wire from roadside electrical boxes. Our unofficial count Monday night put the number of out-of-service highway lights between 6th Avenue in Tacoma and Wollochet Drive in Gig Harbor at well over a dozen, and that was just in the westbound lanes.

Department of Transportation officials regret they haven’t solved the problem; wire pirates remain unthwarted by DOT’s best efforts to increase surveillance, weld junction box lids shut and replace copper with aluminum wire. As the costs spiral higher, the lights stay out longer.

Across Washington, the agency spent nearly $250,000 on highway light repair and replacement in the last year and a half, according to a December report by Stateline, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The report documented widespread damage inflicted by copper wire poachers up and down America’s roadways, from Arizona to Montana.

This is far from a victimless crime.

In Missouri, pressure mounted on transportation officials to do something after a 55-year-old woman in a wheelchair was struck and killed by a driver in Kansas City last fall; she was crossing a section of highway that was dark due to wire thefts. Now Missouri officials are trying a new way to outfox the thieves: They’re stringing overhead cables on thousands of highway lights whose wiring normally runs underground.

Just because Washington hasn’t had a similar tragedy (yet) shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. A study by the Federal Highway Administration found that good lighting can reduce late-night and early-morning traffic accidents by 35 percent.

Washington DOT officials must not raise the white flag of surrender but should consider a range of ideas to fend off the bad guys. Legislators ought to help where they can; state Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma, the new chair of the House Transportation Committee, tells us he’ll be checking in with DOT on this issue.

Keeping roadways well lit is important not only for traffic safety; sociologists would say it also fosters an atmosphere of community wellbeing by halting small crimes before they metastasize into large ones. You might’ve heard of the “broken windows theory;” the “broken streetlight” theory could be its corollary.

Tacoma and other South Sound communities spend millions trying to meet their residents’ first-class expectations. They work hard to be bright, safe and welcoming places. We should expect no less of the roads that carry us from Point A to Point B.