Union Halts Energy-Efficient Streetlight Bill

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill allowing cities and towns to take ownership of it streetlights and install low-energy bulbs came to a sudden halt — just as it neared passage.

The Municipal Streetlight Investment Act (H5935 and S836) was pulled Monday from the Senate floor for a third time in two weeks as union opposition put a stop to the bill.

According to one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, and Jeffery Broadhead, director of the Washington County Regional Planning Council, National Grid’s utility union convinced House and Senate leadership to stop the bill. Ruggiero and Broadhead said they were disappointed by the action.

Broadhead has advocated for the bill in the General Assembly for three years, hoping to establish a program that saves electricity and maintenance costs for South County municipalities. He modeled the act after a 1997 Massachusetts law that allows municipal streetlamp ownership. Connecticut also permits streetlamp ownership. So far, 70 cities and towns in Massachusetts have made the switch. Each municipality saves an average of 15 percent to 17 percent of annual costs, Broadhead said.

House and Senate leadership yielded to the union’s concern after meetings with the Local 310 Brotherhood of Utility Workers Council on June 7. Broadhead met with the union June 10 and was told the group believed that local streetlight ownership wouldn't benefit the towns financially. Ruggiero said the union opposed to the legislation because of safety concerns.

Sen. James Sheehan, D-Narragansett, sponsor of the Senate bill, also said the union had concerns about jobs and safety, but believes that a compromise is possible and the bill could pass this year.

Broadhead calculated that the nine towns in his planning council would save $250,000 annually if they switched to local ownership. He also noted that if the bil becomes law, the switch to local ownership would be a slow process, allowing union concerns to be addressed. Each city and town in the state must first approve of the streetlight ownership separately, he said.

“One narrow-focused union should not be a able to hold up such a broad-based effort that can save the towns so much money and improve service,” Broadhead said.

Currently, National Grid has little incentive to trim costs on streetlights or upgrade to energy-efficient lighting. Each streetlight utility pole is accessed a fee, or tariff, based on a complicated fee structure that is set by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC). With independent ownership, municipalities create their own maintenance agreements and install energy-saving bulbs.

Broadhead also noted that 54 of 55 Massachusetts municipalities that own streetlights use union contractors for maintenance. Ruggiero agreed that the program doesn’t threaten union jobs. “We’re going to create jobs for union workers if any cities and towns want to go about this program,” she said

The bill was delayed in the House on May 30 and sent back to committee to address the union matter. No hearing has been scheduled. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill June 18. Ruggiero said it's likely the bill won’t pass this soon-to-end session.