- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

City officials do not know with great certainty how many computers, cellular telephones, pagers, digital cable, satellite dishes and other telecommunications services are used in the District. Nor do they know, for that matter, how many potholes and utility cuts are in the roadways as competition has companies racing to accommodate the high demands for new and advanced technologies. As it turns out, such modern-day conveniences as cell phones and digital messaging services do have a downside.

Unchecked road work has given new meaning to the term road rage, and near round-the-clock traffic congestion has blurred the lines between morning and evening rush hours. It has gotten to the point that, if you are not extremely familiar with D.C. neighborhoods, dodging gridlock is nearly impossible. And, whereas potholes and parking tickets used to hold the top spots on motorists' short list of gripes, the list now has a third problem because of various road work projects.

These days motorists driving along already-choked roads are blocked by jersey walls, delayed by construction flag crews and detoured by repair crews and that's when they aren't dodging utility cuts and potholes. Illegally parked vehicles, particularly construction vehicles and dumpsters, take up precious public parking spaces, and utility workers park city-owned vehicles in crosswalks, impeding motorists and pedestrians. Merchants, cabbies and Metrobus riders are frustrated, too, and so are tour bus drivers, who rumble along neighborhood streets because of detours. Everyone is indeed overwhelmed and that's during non-rush hours.

The source of their frustrations, though, is not with the utility companies per se, but, as usual, with the D.C. government. One high-level official said a few weeks ago that he doesn't see a lot of transportation planning at public works or enough coordination between the city and the utilities. The result is that one company digs up a street to lay its cable and might make repairs, only for another utility to tear up the same area to lay, for example, its pipes. Indeed, as Mayor Williams characterized the situation, "There hasn't been good management … it has left a lot to be desired."

Belatedly, the Williams administration has gotten the chaotic picture, issuing a moratorium and taking charge of the situation. It's about time. The mayor also is exercising a prerogative granted by the D.C. Council, by imposing rents, as other major cities do, on companies that bury fiber-optic cables and pipes. Some utilities, such as AT&T;, don't mind as long as the fees are reasonable. The legislation, passed in 1996, gives the city the authority to charge telecommunications firms from $739 to $2,059 per mile. To ensure compliance, the city has hired inspectors to monitor and to coordinate current and future road work. For the most part, the changes are for the better.

However, as D.C. motorists say, the proof is in the asphalt.

That Mr. Williams is as displeased with public works as motorists is not surprising. Mr. Williams recently returned from Paris, a beautiful city of magnificent boulevards and the model for the District of Columbia's original street grid. Now that he has opened his eyes to the mismanaged D.C. road system, perhaps he will try to make this a beautiful city, too.

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