When Arlington County workers spread a fresh macadam surface over South 16th Street between Joyce and Kent streets last summer, Earl Copeland Jr. was willing to bet it wouldn't last.

The last time the street was paved, about 20 years ago, Copeland recalls watching as water company employes, then the gas company, sliced through the new macadam to replace and repair utility lines.

"This time, I tried to get myself a bet that it would be torn up again. But I didn't get any bets. The neighbors were all ready to place bets the same way," Copeland said this week.

Sure enough, Copeland watched from the porch of his home at 1037 S. 16th St. three weeks ago as Virginia Power engineers marked a ribbon of pavement about 2 1/2 feet wide and contractors dug a trench through the road surface to connect four new street lights.

County public works officials and a Virginia Power spokesman say the trench was misplaced; plans for the project, they said, called for excavating a strip of curbside grass rather than the new street.

"No digging should have been in the street," said Kenneth Dillard, a county engineering technician. "It was brought to my attention after the trench had been dug. It was too late."

"There was a little problem with the way the engineer staked it and cut the road . . . If the plans indicated that it was supposed to go down the median strip and it went down the street, that was our mistake," said power company spokesman Jim Buck.

Buck said the company had patched the excavated strip. Neither he nor county public works officials could say whether the company would be required to repave the entire street. "That's something we need to work out with the county," Buck said.

The street light project, requested in a 1982 petition signed by every resident on the block, was approved by the county board in March 1984. That summer, as part of a regular 20-year repaving cycle, the street was resurfaced.

Nearly one year later, the $6,571 street light project got under way. The rest, Copeland said with a sigh, is history.

"I thought if they were doing this kind of thing 20 years ago, it would be nice if we could get them to stop, but I suppose they'll be doing it 20 years from now," he said.

Earl Lillard, county operations supervisor for the Public Works Department, said it's not unusual -- in fact, it's nearly inevitable -- that what the county paves, the utility companies dig up. In an urban area with numerous sewer, water, gas and electric lines, fresh paving often doesn't sit long before an emergency -- or a routine repair -- means a new cut in the street.

"As much as I hate it, because it's my job to pave the streets, in an urban area, it happens all the time," Lillard said. "If it's only every 20 years, it's not much to complain about."