Duggan: Detroit's problem with streetlights could cost $9M

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Bright street lights are surrounded by dimmed and discolored street lights on Gratiot Street at Gunston Street.

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan says a fix for the city's defective streetlights is expected to cost up to $9 million but will be done while the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit seeks reimbursement from the LED manufacturer.

The lighting authority filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the manufacturer of nearly a third of the city's 65,000 streetlights, saying the units are "prematurely dimming and burning out."

Read more: Detroit’s LED streetlights going dark after a few years

The defective product from Leotek Electronics USA, the lawsuit contends, impacts upward of 20,000 LED lights and puts the city's revitalization progress "in jeopardy."

Duggan on Tuesday said that Detroit's recovery could be at risk if there was a failure to act, but there isn't.

"We find a problem, we face up to it and we solve it, and that’s what we’re doing," Duggan said. "We're going full speed ahead on replacement and suing them for the $8-9 million it will cost us."

The issue was discovered last fall during routine surveys of the lighting system, and it's tied to defective units that were either "charred, burned, or cracked," according to a February letter from the lighting authority's law firm. 

The California-based manufacturer acknowledged in a December letter to the lighting authority that it had experienced "a higher number of reports of failures" in the models that are dimming city streets, primarily in west side neighborhoods and a number of Detroit's major thoroughfares.

The LED lights provided by Leotek were anticipated to last for at least a decade. 

The lighting authority intends to begin replacing the faulty units by June and complete the process by November.

"We're going to move quickly. We will get them all replaced by the end of the year," Duggan said. "In many cases, we'll replace them before they dim."

Most of the defective lights were installed in sections of major thoroughfares including Gratiot, Jefferson and Woodward as well as neighborhoods in the city's west side. 

Councilman Gabe Leland, who represents District 7 on the city's west side, said he has fielded complaints and concerns over the issue that he said impacts public safety.

"Detroiters demand and deserve the right and appropriate city services and they should expect them to work," Leland said. "They are defective. You can see it on some of the neighborhood streets. We can't afford a summer in Detroit without lights."

When the lighting authority embarked on the three-year, $185 million effort, it required a complete overhaul of the city's lighting grid. Duggan said that addressing the Leotek failures will require a simple change out.

The lighting authority entered into a purchase agreement with Leotek in March 2014 for various wattages of its E-Cobra model LED units. The lighting authority paid $3.9 million to Leotek for 25,320 of the lights. The installation cost was about $5.2 million. 

The lawsuit notes that over the past five months, lights have failed in "large sections of Detroit," and that Leotek officials have refused attempts by the lighting authority to honor warranty benefits "even though they admit the problem with its luminaires and know that it is imperiling the safety and wellbeing of Detroit residents."

"It's the fault of one contractor who made LED lights that were defective," Duggan said. "We're the first large city in America that went to 100% LEDs. We knew we were in the early stages of this, and they were wise to have used three different suppliers of light."

A Leotek representative and the company's attorney did not immediately return calls Tuesday or Monday seeking comment. 

In March, an attorney for the company acknowledged its obligations under the 2014 purchase agreement and “has every intention of fulfilling those obligations.”

The letter noted that Leotek was seeking more information so it can determine the extent of the failures and address them.

“At this time, Leotek’s information regarding the specific failures is very limited and at this time it does not have sufficient information to determine which LEDs have failed or where they have failed,” California-based attorney Quinlan Tom wrote in a March 5, 2019, letter to the lighting authority’s legal counsel. 

Tom urged the lighting authority to provide documentation regarding the failed units and surveys of where the burnout exists.

“We share the authority’s significant safety concerns regarding any such failures,” he wrote. “Therefore, we believe it is imperative that the authority provide the information as soon as possible so that Leotek can proceed with fulfilling its warranty obligations without delay. 

The lighting authority's lawsuit notes that the issues are isolated to Leotek's products. Tens of thousands of lights purchased from the other manufacturers — Cree Inc., Cooper Industries Inc., and King Lighting Inc. — are performing to industry standards. 

"To me, this shows the wisdom of using multiple suppliers," Duggan said. "So if you have one bad one, it’s something you can solve fairly quickly. Obviously, we’re not going to let this sit."