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How to Keep Costly Road Repairs to a Minimum

Coordination between public agencies and utilities will keep streets from being torn up, again and again.

David Kidd
Near our New York City apartment, there’s a major intersection that has repeatedly been torn up over the years, causing unfortunate disruptions to the flow of traffic. It’s also given the two of us a lively topic of conversation at the start of many a trip outside our neighborhood.

We kept trying to figure out how any road could need repairs on such a frequent basis, and then it occurred to us: Many situations like this are caused by communities opening up a road for work without factoring in that a utility or some other agency might be stripping the asphalt again in just a month or two.

Read the May issue of Governing magazine.

This can be expensive stuff. Consider these cost estimates from a 2011 report by Envista, a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations communicate and collaborate internally more effectively: Burlington, Vt., spent $500,000 a year unnecessarily thanks to utility cut patching; Kansas City, Mo., suffered $4 million in damages caused by cuts to streets resurfaced in a three-year period; and similarly, Cincinnati lost about one-third of the service life of its streets as a result of repeated construction.

Beyond these monetary costs, Envista found that municipal projects are often delayed when public works crews have to wait for utilities to finish their work. What’s more, when utilities dig up brand new or recently repaved streets, it has ramifications. The utility’s reputation is harmed; at the same time, it hurts citizens’ view of their government.

Unlike many other managerial problems, there’s a relatively straightforward -- if not simple -- solution: coordination. When the parties responsible for giving permits to utilities work smoothly and efficiently with one another and with the departments in charge of road and bridge maintenance, chances that a city’s roads will look like a perpetual war zone decrease.

For a utility program to be successfully coordinated, it needs to have some basics in place. It needs established policies, standard practices and clear procedures to accomplish these tasks. San Diego stands out as just such a place. It was relatively dysfunctional in terms of this kind of coordination until a few years ago, when it reorganized its approach for the better. As a city audit indicated, “Without a unifying organizational structure that encourages efficiency, collaboration, and proactive management of transportation assets, the City cannot make wise investments.”

The findings in San Diego’s audit suggest officials are making progress. It found that cities with a high percentage of roads in good condition, such as Portland, Ore., or Atlanta, require:

  • a citywide, 24-month excavation plan for all maintenance work;
  • a 12-month resurfacing plan to be shared with public and private entities doing street-related work;
  • both private entities and city departments must apply for a permit to excavate in the public right of way.
But even as cities have improved their coordination between standard utilities and their own street repairs, a new disconnect is cropping up. In a growing number of places, broadband networks are an additional, distant and oft-ignored player.

“What I’ve seen as a city planner is that broadband planning issues are not a priority for cities to deal with,” says Kate McMahon, partner with Applied Communications, a consulting company for land-use, broadband and strategic planning for community organizations. “They tend to focus on traditional land use -- water, sewer and roads.”

That makes some common sense. After all, water and sewer lines are usually run by municipalities, and the cities frequently own their own roadways. On the other hand, the private sector tends to own the vast bulk of telecom infrastructure, so coordination is much more difficult. “The telecoms are not only private sector,” she says, “but a lot of them are regional or national. A telecom provider’s headquarters could be in another state. That is a big difference.”

Massachusetts has taken a big step to integrate its broadband infrastructure installation with its roads, bridges and utilities. The goal -- as with all this kind of coordination -- can be expressed in just two words: Dig once.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) keeps tabs on all projects in the state, coordinating individual events among players and setting the stage for those entities to plan. The institute has a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Transportation, as well as with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, that requires them to notify MBI when their major projects are scheduled. That gives organizations the opportunity to install broadband in the same time frame as, say, a repaving project.

“Having those relationships and those understandings so you are not caught unawares of those large projects is first and foremost,” says MBI Director Judith Dumont.

The Broadband Institute also helps cities and towns prepare their policies when there are opportunities to coordinate broadband deployment as it comes through the town. “If we have 45 towns to run broadband through,” says Dumont, “and they had to start flatfooted in every town, efficient coordination isn’t going to happen.”

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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