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.

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.

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