Trench Warfare

Do you know which streets will be torn up on any given day? Of course not. Neither does the city. SF Weekly's Lisa Davis maps out the mayhem.

Earlier this month, a citywide power outage brought San Francisco to its knees. Business stopped, thousands of workers were trapped, and traffic in and out of the city snarled.

As civilization ground to a halt, a construction crew blithely went about its business, tearing up pavement near the intersection of Fourth and Townsend streets. Not even utter municipal paralysis can stop the digging.

Drivers know the scene all too well: traffic tangled in a knot, probably with a crowded bus stuck in the middle, and angry drivers riding their horns. At the eye of the storm sits the nemesis of all city dwellers -- the dreaded orange cones.

It always seems to happen without warning. From day to day, drivers have no idea which street or lane will be blocked. And until recently, neither did the city.

A small measure of order may finally be coming. With relatively little fanfare, the Board of Supervisors adopted legislation in November overhauling the city's excavation code, and with good reason. The city is under siege by contractors. During the past five years, street excavation has increased from 562,000 square feet to 720,000 square feet annually.

The seemingly permanent upheaval is due to aging infrastructure, burgeoning technology, and the inability of city officials to manage either. And the situation is costing more than just inconvenience. Last year alone, taxpayers spent $14.1 million repairing and repaving broken streets. About half of the city's streets are still in need of repaving, and a parade of contractors continues to assault the rest.

Seeking a method to the madness, SF Weekly conducted a computer-assisted review of six months' worth of city permit reports. The results are every bit as distressing as drivers might imagine -- street excavation has reached a level of near anarchy.

The Department of Public Works has passed out thousands of permits allowing phone companies, Pacific Gas & Electric, and others to dig up streets, but there has been no system to keep track of who is working on what street at any particular time.

It might seem logical, for instance, that if MCI and AT&T both want to cut open a specific street to lay cable, that they do it at the same time and save drivers a world of grief.

Not so. The city's excavation permits allow a contractor to dig most any time they want, with no coordination between projects. Several crews with different purposes may all descend to dig up one street simultaneously. Or a parade of crews may pass through any given block, creating a state of perpetual construction.

The new code requirements may change some of that, mostly by trying to engender coordination among those tearing up the streets. But one thing is for sure: There will be no end to the digging. In fact, it's likely to increase.

The two biggest diggers in San Francisco are PG&E and the city itself.
PG&E is in the midst of a massive, system-wide program to tear out aging gas lines and replace them with new ones that are less brittle than the 60-year-old iron pipes now in the ground. The process has been underway, at various speeds, for more than a decade. Records at the city's Department of Public Works show that the utility company has outstanding permits on more than 425 blocks, some or all of which might be under construction at any given time. And PG&E officials estimate that the trenching will continue until 2009.

Simultaneously, and prompted somewhat by San Francisco's post-recession budget euphoria, various city departments are replacing water and sewer lines throughout the city. Some of the lines date back to the last century and are in woeful need of replacement. Meanwhile, Muni is expanding and replacing worn track in an attempt to function, well, better.

And although all of these projects come under the umbrella of the City and County of San Francisco, thus far the work has remained separate and virtually uncoordinated. The Department of Public Works has no idea even when the city's own crews are out digging. The new excavation law, which goes into effect January 1, requires city departments to take out permits through DPW. But it will not slow down the trenching.

In fact, during the next five years, various city agencies and PG&E have plans to tear up a combined 4,369 blocks, about one-third of San Francisco's streets. And that doesn't count the plethora of telecommunications companies, cable companies, and other private businesses that regularly want to dig.

A huge impetus for the excavation explosion came with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which essentially deregulated the telecommunications industry. The act grants virtually anyone who's interested the right to do business in a particular area. And doing business in this case means laying cable. Although the federal law also prescribes that the various companies share -- big providers like PacBell must allow newcomers to lease existing cable lines -- telecommunication companies tend to want their own lines.

"The problem is that they don't want to share," says Deputy City Attorney Tracy Bone. "I don't see people coming in saying that they'd like to lease someone else's conduit [pipes that house cable lines]. Fiber in the ground is valuable."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.