ATLANTA -- Most people assume when the sun goes down, the 7,000 lights lining Atlanta's interstates come on. But that would be the wrong assumption to make. Nearly half of them don't work.
"It's dangerous. You could just wreck into somebody and, I don't know, not even see them coming because it's so dark out there," said Breanna Yenkana who travels I-75 every day for work.
When 11Alive started asking questions, the city said it knew of about 300 lights that weren't working. An audit three months later, put that number at more than 3,000.
Just as the damage was under estimated - so was the time it would take to make the repairs. The city originally hoped it would be able to fix the problem by the end of 2012. Now Public Works Commissioner hopes to have them fixed by the end of 2014.
"Until we really got out there, got the boots on the ground and put eyes on all the infrastructure it was hard, I was optimistic," said Mendoza.
The city has been able to fix the high mast lights near the I-285 interchange with I-20W and is currently working on the lights on the southend of the downtown connector toward the domestic airport terminal off I-85.
But there's still a lot of territory left, and Mendoza admits he doesn't have the funding yet to fix it all.
The long list of repairs is the result of three years of neglect. Mendoza says the city cut the budget for lighting in 2009 when the economy turned.
Marietta and DeKalb county also maintain interstate lights and say funding was never negotiable.
"Hasn't been brought up and yes we're under crunch, under budget crunch. They've cut back in a lot of areas, not in that area," said Thomas Bell the electrical director for Marietta Power.
Bell says copper theft has created an added expense. It's a problem every community has faced.
"Some of them have cut through the conduit to get to the copper, to get to the wire and remove the wire. But once they do that, it damages it and it's very difficult and time consuming and expensive to repair," explained Bell.
Still, once every two years, Bells sends out his crews to make the repairs and change every bulb. He says its impractical to go out more often because crews have to shut down a lane and get a law enforcement escort, to access the lights.
Marietta spends about $72,000 a year on its lights. Many communities don't have them at all, leading some to wonder if the lights in Atlanta have been out for so long, why spend the money to fix them.
"My headlights work just fine so it's not really an issue. I think that money could be better spent," said driver Edgar Wiggins.
Others believe there are too many cars in downtown Atlanta for the lights not to work.
"If it wasn't for the businesses right here that have their signs lit up, then there'd be no way to see anything," said Brianna Perez. She busted a tire when she hit a curb getting onto I-75 a few days ago and blames the lack of light.
Mendoza says it will cost about $1.2 million to get the lights working and another $250,000 after that to maintain them. The power bill, could be another million each year. But after years of driving in the dark, Mendoza says its time to see the light.
"The Department of Public Works is charged with maintaining and operating those and they're not there just to be dark. So we're going to turn them back on," said Mendoza.
You can reach Rebecca Lindstrom, the reporter on this story, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LindstromNews.