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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.

Wednesday, Dec 23 1998
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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."

Basically, communication companies of all kinds are betting on a technologically unpredictable future (after all, the Internet boom is only a few years old). Conventional wisdom dictates that the company with the most cable in the ground wins -- either by offering new services or leasing their cable to other companies.

Another result of the act is that an increasing number of large organizations are buying and installing their own cable. For instance, the University of California, Kaiser Foundation, Golden Gate University, University of San Francisco, and Levi Strauss & Co. all have telecommunications cable in San Francisco.

The act also allows new companies to provide cable, phone, and high-speed Internet access all together. This means that street trenching will be heading out into the neighborhoods during the next few years as new companies try to sign up customers and provide service.

While the city may legally dictate the time, place, and manner of excava-tion, state and federal law prevents San Francisco from just saying "no" to street trenching.

The system itself is broken. San Francisco's antiquated excavation code allows permits that are good for six months at a time, without designating when work on the streets will actually take place.

Excavation works like this: There are usually several different construction crews involved in a project -- one that makes cuts in the pavement, another that digs the trench, and still another that actually lays cable or pipe in the ground.

It is cheapest for contractors to send the crews to new construction sites one by one. So, one crew scurries around town making cuts in streets. Sometime later, the trenching crew follows. And sometime after that, the crew arrives to do whatever work is intended. The street may be under construction for days or weeks before the final crew comes and finishes the job.

Therefore, it's quite possible for two contractors, each of which has a valid permit, to be working simultaneously on either side of the same street. (The Department of Parking and Traffic regulations only require notification to the city for work that exceeds one lane.)

"The surprise comes when somebody who needs to do a one-day repair shows up [without notice]," says Vitaly Troyan, special assistant to the director of DPW. "That can mess things up seriously."

Only five inspectors have the authority to police and stop excavation work in the 12,700 blocks of San Francisco. In early September, after Mayor Willie Brown found himself stuck in traffic, the city restricted street construction to between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., except for emergencies. Since then, DPW has issued more than 400 citations -- a $271 fine -- to contractors working before or after the time limit.

Under the new law, taking effect January 1, contractors of projects lasting longer than 15 days must participate in joint excavation and must restore the right-of-way within nine days. Street work must begin within 30 days of receiving a permit and must include start and finish dates. And excavation work is limited to 1,000-foot segments at a time.

And for the first time, contractors will be required to post signs before they start digging and notify neighbors and businesses 30 days in advance of major projects.

Most significantly, however, the Department of Public Works will begin operating a geographic information system that will log all of the construction on city streets and allow the city to track and schedule that work.

"It's almost a hotel reservation system for working in the streets," says the city's Troyan. "The computer can scan for conflicts."

Inconvenience aside, the boom in street excavation is costing San Francisco a lot of money. A recent engineering study commissioned by the city found that trench cuts are adding as much as $5 million a year to normal repaving costs. In fact, DPW reports show that more than 1,483 blocks in San Francisco contain at least 10 utility cuts.

Utility companies, including PG&E, continue to dispute the argument that trenching shortens the normal lifespan of pavement, which is about 20 years.

Much to the their chagrin, San Francisco joined a growing number of cities, including Sacramento and Los Angeles, in adopting a repavement fee for certain trench work. After January 1, contractors will be charged a fee of $1-3.50 per square foot to dig, depending on the age of the street.

The new law also places a five-year moratorium on trenching newly paved streets, except in emergency situations. But gathering and coordinating long-range plans from all of the various street players is a bit like herding cats.

"What I tell them is that if you don't have a five-year plan and we pave, well, then you know where you can't go," says Troyan.

And, of course, the question of what, exactly, constitutes an emergency remains to be seen. The city's new law leaves that determination to the Department of Public Works, which will rule separately on each request to cut into new pavement.

"We have to strike a balance between demand for service and the cost," says Troyan. "It's the effect of 700,000 people in 49 square miles."

The system the city has been using to issue excavation permits does not allow it to know exactly when a contractor will tear up a specific block. In an attempt to illustrate the chaos, however, SF Weekly reviewed months of excavation-permit reports from the Department of Public Works. Here is a snapshot of one of the city's neighborhoods most beset by construction, the South-of-Market area. The map and icons illustrate all of the excavation work that was legally permitted to take place in this area from September 14 through November 20, 1998. It would have been perfectly legal for every street marked on this map to be torn up at the same time, and contractors were under no obligation to tell the Department of Public Works, or neighbors and businesses, exactly when they planned to dig.

About The Author

Lisa Davis

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