Controlling A Hole in The Ground

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Fairfax County supervisor wants power at the local level to regulate projects such as Verizon Communications' dig to lay a fiber-optic network, which county officials say has been badly managed and has resulted in a flood of customer complaints.

Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said he has received several dozen calls about the project in the past month from residents. Most, he said, have complained about lack of prior notification, workers whose clothes or vehicles show no identification, failure to restore property to its previous condition and crews without an English-speaking supervisor, something state safety rules require. The excavation often uproots yards and driveways that are within public utilities' rights of way.

Grievances about the network, which is designed to give subscribers high-speed Internet, phone and television service, are not restricted to the Lee District. Although contractors recently began laying the network in that area, the conversion has been underway for several years throughout the county and the Washington region, spurring complaints along the way about property damage and service outages.

In the past two years, the county's consumer protection agency has received 106 complaints that Verizon failed to repair property damage.

Although state and county regulators can address some of those problems, McKay said frustrations are so high that he wants local officials to have more, and stiffer, enforcement power. He has asked Fairfax staff members to prepare a proposal to include in the county's legislative package.

"We've got to find a way to come up with legislation in Richmond to prevent this kind of stuff from happening," McKay said.

County consumer protection officials said they have been working with Verizon to address common complaints, said Mitsuko R. Herrera, director of the Communications Policy and Regulation Division of the county's Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection.

Verizon spokesman Harry J. Mitchell said the company has responded to an increase in complaints from the Springfield area by instituting a program under which a Verizon employee checks to make sure subcontractors have hung notifications on neighborhood doors 10 to 30 days before the start of a dig. When a project portion is finished, a Verizon inspector must review the work and the property restoration and ensure that "post-construction" notifications have been hung on doors, Mitchell said.

In addition, he said, company officials have been meeting with contractors to "re-emphasize" rules, including requirements that each job have a supervisor who speaks English and wears an orange vest marked "supervisor" and that each construction vehicle be marked with the name of the prime contractor, whose vehicle must bear a "Verizon contractor" sign.

"Our objective is to make these upgrades as unobtrusive as possible for the community and for the residents who are living there," Mitchell said. "And where we're not doing that, we work hard to make that right."

Utility company construction is regulated by a tangle of agencies and codes. Fairfax inspectors, for example, do safety inspections of about 20 percent of cable company construction sites in the county and can issue noncompliance notices and fines for violations. Property restoration complaints are regulated by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which can levy fines.

Kenneth J. Schrad, a spokesman for the commission, said Verizon has never been fined for not fixing property damage.

"It has to be an intentional, ongoing, deliberate practice. When it happens, the company has always been responsive," he said.

But Schrad added that residents who think that their property has not been properly restored should first contact Verizon and -- if they feel that the company is unresponsive -- contact the commission: "Until we have a pattern of complaints that shows this has become a practice and not just a spot occurrence, then we can't determine whether or not there has been willful violation."

McKay said he has also been encouraging customers to lodge formal complaints. But he said giving localities the power to issue more citations and fines would pack a more powerful punch.

"If you don't have the teeth and enforcement and penalty mechanism in place to make these utilities feel pain, you're not going to get anywhere," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company