Central Services crews put in late nights on Macon’s interstate lights

For weeks, volunteers from the city of Macon’s Central Services Department checked and repaired 1,000 lights along Interstates 75 and 16.

Work started June 3, and crews wrapped up the project Thursday morning, right on schedule, with no serious problems save for some wiring issues in a couple of areas, said Frank Wellborn, electrical supervisor.

The work, called “re-lamping,” is usually done every five years, Wellborn said, although a major outage sometimes makes Central Services rework sections in the interim.

The city maintains the interstate lights under a state contract, but Macon doesn’t get any state money for doing so, Director Gene Simonds said. So the cost of maintenance -- and the electricity to run the lights year-round -- falls on the city.

The first two weeks of the maintenance work had already added up to $24,590 in material and labor, said Deborah Hollingshed, Central Services administrative services coordinator. She and Simonds agreed that the cost of electricity probably comes to about $100,000 each year.

A dozen employees from across Central Services’ seven divisions volunteered to work 10 hours per night, four nights a week when traffic is lightest, on the project. Normally the volunteers worked days, said Wellborn, who himself joined in the work.

Starting about 8 p.m., two trucks laden with orange barrels began closing lanes in accordance with Georgia Department of Transportation standards. Workers Shannon Callaway, Blake Davis, Doug Heiman, Willie Matthews, Derrick Williams, Henry Wood and Dennis Yeske marked off about two miles a night in the riskiest part of the job, Wellborn said.

About 10 p.m. they were followed by two bucket trucks that moved from one pole to the next. Bringing up the rear was a Macon police car with its blue lights flashing.

“Even with all of the precautions, all of the effort setting up lane control, we still lose those large barrel barricades,” Simonds said. “They’ll still hit them.”

One recent Sunday night, Lafayette Carey was driving the first bucket truck. He’d pull up to a light and open the panel at its base, working on the wiring while the bucket carrying Wilbert Mallory rose to the light fixture itself.

Carey said checking the wiring takes him about 10 minutes per pole, unless the electrical ballast has to be changed. That doubles the time.

Mallory, in the bucket that Sunday night, said the long shift was tiring, but he volunteered because he knew it was necessary work.

Adam Barefoot drove the second truck, duplicating Carey’s work on a second pole at each stop. Barefoot said he worked on the last round of re-lamping as well.

“It’s all right. I’ve done it before,” he said.

Randy McCarty rode in the bucket on Barefoot’s truck. Sometimes it takes more than just routine electrical work. They had set up one new pole in the previous week and expected to replace two damaged ones, he said. That task takes a lot of time and effort, McCarty said.

He reiterated the warnings of Simonds and Wellborn that many drivers don’t respect work zones, day or night, endangering the electricians and especially the barrel-truck crews.

“When you see the barrels, slow down,” McCarty said.

Each lamp is expected to have 8,000 to 10,000 “burning hours,” Simonds said, so all bulbs are replaced even if they’re still working. The crews cleaned the fixtures, repaired any damage, replaced blown fuses and checked the electrical ballast, a device that regulates current.

“So we’re going into every one of those 1,000 fixtures,” Simonds said.

On several occasions thieves have stripped copper wire out of interstate lights, and the problem continues, Simonds said.

“It’s happened again,” he said.

That can cause thousands of dollars in damage, while netting the thieves only a few bucks for the metal. Even when they don’t get away with much wire, fixing the lights can be very expensive, Wellborn said.

Even as workers finished the re-lamping project, thieves struck again last month on both sides of I-75, Simonds said. They’ve reported the theft to city police, but several lights were out until mid-week, he said.

Another 37 lights on I-475 at Eisenhower Parkway weren’t part of this project, Wellborn said. Also the lights on I-75 and I-16 off-ramps weren’t done because they can be worked on later without major lane closures, he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.