Removal of Harlem Road street lights causes stir

Street lights on Harlem Road between the Kensington Expressway and Huth Road were removed by the highway department on August 30th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Street lights on Harlem Road between the Kensington Expressway and Huth Road were removed by the highway department on August 30th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. – A Highway Department project to perform maintenance on street lights along a stretch of Harlem Road will take longer than expected and Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner says political motives are to blame while other town officials say it’s simply a safety issue.

The hullabaloo started Wednesday as town highway workers along Harlem Road were removing light fixtures for general maintenance based upon an email from Town Engineer Patrick Bowen.

Cheektowaga Chronicle obtained the July 27th email to the highway department in which Mr. Bowen highlighted blown bulbs, flicker issues or an insect problem with 15 of the 53 light fixtures along the Harlem Road corridor.

Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner says he planned to clean and restore all 53 light fixtures that line Harlem Road from the Kensington Expressway to the Amherst town line in three phases – 20 one day, 20 another day, and then the remaining 13.

“I wanted to get the area by Cleveland Hill High School done before school,” said Mr. Wegner.

As Mr. Wegner’s crews started to remove all the lights between the expressway and Huth Road, some residents called the NYDOT while others called town councilmembers with safety concerns.  Councilmember Gerald Kaminski says it wasn’t a bright idea in his book.

Cars drive down an unlit Harlem Road on August 30th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Cars drive down an unlit Harlem Road on August 30th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

“I had a serious issue with taking those lights down.  That just doesn’t make any sense what so ever in my mind.  My assumption would be the town could possibly be held liable for it,” said Mr. Kaminski.

To complicate matters, the lights in question have come under recent scrutiny by Mr. Kaminski, Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski, and other town officials.  During a meeting Monday at the Alexander Community Center, town officials were informed that some of the light fixtures have fallen from the pole without any explanation.

“I was kind of shocked because that was the first I had heard about it.  What was related to me over at Alexander Street, a few of these things have come down over the last few years,” added Mr. Kaminski.

Not knowing the exact reason why the lights were being removed Wednesday, he started to ask questions and encountered, “too much smoke and mirrors and a lot of finger pointing.”

He says he thought the officials discussed the matter at the meeting Monday and was surprised to see the lights come down a few days later.

Light fixtures on Harlem Road have fallen from the pole without any explanation. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Light fixtures on Harlem Road have fallen from the pole without any explanation. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

“We had talked about getting the manufacturer in ASAP to address the issue with these fixtures.  In my eyes, it’s a design flaw.  If these things have been coming down as much as two years ago, why has it not been addressed?” said Mr. Kaminski.

Supervisor Diane Benczkowski says, “He’s correct, we should have been told about that by the engineering department.  Our town engineer knew about it, not our lighting crew, they maintain them.  They clean them, they replace the bulb, and they put them back up.”

Following the removal of the lights, Town Engineer Patrick Bowen tells Cheektowaga Chronicle that he advised the highway crew that Harlem Road is a state highway and the town needed their approval to remove the lights.

“Plus it’s a safety issue; you just can’t remove the lights.  We made the recommendation that the lights get put back up,” said Mr. Bowen.

Highway crews returned to Harlem Road Thursday to reinstall the light fixtures.  The change in the highway department’s plans caused frustration for Mr. Wegner.  He says he discussed the project with Councilmember Christine Adamczyk, the chair of the town’s Street Lighting and Signs Committee.

“We talked together all the time and we knew what was going on. Then other people get involved that don’t know what’s going on.  That’s the biggest problem, because of the political year and it’s a week and a half away from the primary,” said Mr. Wegner.

“Now they stopped (the project) and now I’ll have to do two (lights) a day – take them down, get them washed, and put them back up on the same day because of school.  I can’t have it dark in the morning.”

Mr. Kaminski, who is also a member of the town’s Street Lighting and Signs committee isn’t convinced.

“What she had related to me is that she was working with Mr. Wegner on the lights over the 33.  She knew nothing about this Harlem Road situation,” said Mr. Kaminski.

Ms. Adamczyk did not return our request for an interview at the time of publication.

“Nobody will convince me that there was any reason to take down that many street lights all at once to clean them.  That’s a bunch of B.S. in my book, Jim; I hate to say it.  It is what it is, and this is also my belief, I don’t really think it was that critical of an emergency situation, but I’m also a firm believer that it should have been discussed with some of the board members before we made any moves,” said Mr. Kaminski.

Shawn Davis is the Director of External Affairs in WNY for the New York State Department of Transportation.  He says the town is required to maintain the lights and has an annual permit to work on them.  The suspected design flaw will be addressed by both the town engineer and a DOT engineer.

“We will work with the town and coordinate a plan because I think they will remove them, but for traffic flow, we want to make sure we are working with all agencies involved to ensure that the lights come down safely,” said Mr. Davis.

“The big worry is safety.  We don’t want anything falling on the road or on anybody.”