D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced steps yesterday aimed at easing damage and disruption from the miles of trenches dug for high-tech cable along city streets. But his plan gives the D.C. government less control over the private construction work than some other cities have exerted.
The District also will continue to allow telecommunications companies free use of the right of way beneath city streets, while some of the other cities and counties being wired are charging a percentage of a company's gross revenue.
Williams (D) said that charging fees or imposing stringent rules would discourage telecommunications firms from flocking to the nation's capital. "How do we balance the need to become a tech city with the need for our own citizens to get around?" the mayor asked, as he stood a few feet from work crews burrowing into I Street NW near Farragut Park during a news conference. "We don't want to unnecessarily burden these companies."
At the same time, Williams said he is "frustrated and maddened by the proliferation of scars on our streets" from the frenzy of utility work, most of which is burial of fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet and other telecommunications services.
Nine telecommunications companies hold about 145 permits to lay pipe and fiber-optic cable beneath city streets, officials said. About half of that work is complete.
Lack of coordination has allowed competing companies to attack the same street in succession, so that the road is sliced open, patched up and then sliced open again with the next work crew. That has left certain streets in a state of perpetual construction and prompted a growing chorus of complaints from motorists, pedestrians, taxi drivers and delivery services.
Williams said the city will start requiring companies to file construction schedules twice a year and encourage them to work together, so that when a trench is open on a street, more than one work crew can lay cable at the same time. The city also will require that utility companies complete installation and restore a street to its original condition within 120 days after a permit is issued.
Some other cities and counties maintain stricter controls.
In Chicago, city officials sometimes have refused permits to utility companies that wanted to bury cable in a street that had just been resealed and resurfaced after excavations. "We've told them to go back to the drawing board and find an alternate route," said Carmen Iacullo, the city's deputy commissioner of transportation. Iacullo said that companies get 30 days to complete construction but that extensions are often granted.
Chicago has an Office of Underground Coordination, and as many as six contractors have buried cable on a particular street at the same time.
The city also makes the utility companies pay for the right to use underground space, charging 2 percent of gross earnings generated in the city, Iacullo said.
San Francisco adopted an ordinance calling on companies to coordinate their digging up of the city's streets in order to minimize inconvenience to motorists. Denver has instructed utility companies to try to run lines down alleys or along rail rights of way to avoid downtown streets. In Boston, where workers are building a new highway beneath city streets as part of the nation's largest public works project, workers are burying fiber-optic cable at the same time to avoid the need to go back and reopen streets.
Closer to home, Montgomery County imposes a franchise fee of 5 percent of revenue and requires an "in-kind" contribution from the utility to the county, said Jerry Pasternak, special assistant to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). The companies have 18 months to complete their work.
Prince George's County tried to charge a franchise fee for the use of the right of way--a move that was challenged by the utilities and is pending in appeals court, spokesman Reginald A. Parks said. The time lines for completing installation vary depending on the complexity of the project.
Tony Peduto, the general manager of Starpower, a telecommunications company that is installing 900 miles of fiber-optic cable in the District, welcomed the measures Williams announced yesterday. Peduto said his firm would be happy to coordinate its road work with its competitors if the city provided the information to make that possible. He noted that about 70 percent of Starpower's conduit is being installed above ground, on utility poles, and thus does not require digging.
Peduto said that although he understands the frustration felt by many motorists, the public should think of the street work the way they view the construction of an important new building.
"It's a price you pay today, but it will give residents of the city bandwidth and technology they can utilize for the next 50 years," he said. "When the MCI Center went up, were people inconvenienced? Sure. But now you've got a gem of a building and a revitalized downtown. With this work, people will have high-speed cable access, e-commerce from their own homes. That's where the real benefit is."
Complicating matters is the District's own $400 million road program, which calls for street resurfacing, sidewalk rebuilding and new curbs throughout most sections of the city between now and 2001. Vanessa Dale Burns, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, said the city is taking steps to combine the road work and the cable installation.
In addition to better managing utility work, Williams said, the city will improve the timing of traffic lights, hire 27 "traffic aides" to keep traffic moving through downtown intersections, crack down on illegally parked and abandoned vehicles and expand no-parking restrictions on main thoroughfares by a half-hour during the morning and evening rush periods.
District Streets Take a Beating
Drivers in the District are becoming all too familiar with downtown streets being torn up for the placement of fiber-optic cables. The map below shows the eight busiest areas of construction in the city, according to the D.C. Department of Public Works, and which telecommunications company is doing the digging.
Level 3 Communications Inc. sites
1. New York Ave. NE between Kendall St. and Montana Ave.
2. 16th St. NW between Fuller St. and R St.
3. Nebraska Ave. NW between Ward Circle and New Mexico Ave.
4. Connecticut Ave. NW between Albemarle St. and Van Ness St.
5. Bladensburg Rd. NE between Eastern Ave. and South Dakota Ave.
6. Rhode Island Ave. NW between Connecticut Ave. and Scott Circle.
Metromedia Fiber Network Inc. site
7. P Street NW between Third St. and North Capitol St.
8. Third, Fourth and C streets SW.
CAPTION: Public Works Director Vanessa Dale Burns, with Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Burns said D.C. is taking steps to combine road work and cable installation.