Highway engineers call them street excavations. To the rest of us, they're a pain in the chassis: ruts in the road created by utility companies after they complete repairs underground.

The utility companies say they don't have much choice. In a city where utility lines are mostly underground -- especially in the downtown area -- the only way additional power, gas, sewer and telephone service can be hooked up is by working underground.

The Potomac Electric Power Co., for instance, is opening up a four-foot-wide trench about 1,000 feet at a time between New Jersey Avenue NW and E Street NW and 13th Street NW and W Street NW. New power cables are needed in connection with the opening of a substation in that area.

The utilities say it's news to them that the excavations are a problem, adding that they have received no complaints from city officials. "We'd be glad to discuss any problems with them," said Nancy Moses, Pepco spokeswoman. "We don't have any interest in alienating the public."

A drive along virtually any downtown street turns up signs of the problems with excavations, although it's not always clear whether the utilities or District road crews are responsible for the poor repair work.

Many of the temporary repairs are so slipshod that potholes develop around the excavation. In some cases, the soft asphalt sinks, causing the pavement to slope. Other times, too much asphalt is shoveled into the hole, creating unintentional speed bumps along the road.

When the utility makes the initial cut into the street, city inspectors check it. After the utility is finished, it pays a contractor to make a temporary patch of the hole until the District makes a permanent repair.

The city bills the utility $60 to $100 for each square yard of pavement permanently repaired, which is relatively inexpensive compared with what other cities charge utilities to ensure better quality work.

By its own admission, the city "doesn't issue many citations for utility construction violation of regulations," according to a public works department memorandum to Mayor Marion Barry.

Sometimes the city has no control over what happens. A few years ago, construction crews had almost completed repaving a section of New York Avenue NW near 15th Street when a water main broke. The water department had no choice but to carve into the newly resurfaced street.