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Residents, officials push utilities to fix damaged sidewalks

When utilty companies tear up sidewalks in the District, they often don't put them back. The resulting bumps and holes make annoying or often hazardous obstacles for pedestrians. Residents and leaders in Glover Park have been pushing for fixes, and getting results.

Photo by HÃ¥kon K. Olafsen on Flickr.

Local groups are trying to make their neighborhood better for pedestrians. Glover Park Village, a nonprofit that supports seniors, proposed placing benches so they could take breaks. Volunteers created a snow shoveling service to clear sidewalks for older residents. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 3B is trying to get funding for pedestrian safety improvements identified in a 2007 transportation study.

So when residents began to see dangerous holes and temporary asphalt patches on Tunlaw Road and Benton Street after Pepco removed old utility poles and DC Water repaired a fire hydrant, they reached out to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), which stepped in to get them fixed.

"By the time the construction permit expires, full restoration of the concrete is expected and required by regulation," said Elliot Garrett, Chief Public Space Enforcement Officer at DDOT. The agency successfully got DC Water to replace the concrete sidewalks along Tunlaw Road. It allowed the Benton Street hole to remain until DC Water's construction permit ended 2 months later, by which time DC Water restored the sidewalk.

After the early successes, Garrett assured the community that DDOT would investigate every location someone reported. Glover Park residents kicked off a comprehensive effort to identify every sidewalk with unfinished utility construction.

Hole the in sidewalk at 39th Street and Calvert Place NW. Photo by anonymous volunteer.

Articles on the listserv and in the Glover Park Gazette encouraged residents to report problem locations. One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, volunteered to take a photo of every location to assist DDOT with their investigation.

For each location, residents created a 311 ticket using the online tool SeeClickFix to specify the location, describe the specific problem and upload a photo. Within hours or a day at most, each report gets a 311 tracking number. And residents created an online spreadsheet and a shared folder containing information and photos of each location.

Initially, the neighborhood submitted 24 sidewalk problems into the District's 311 system for evaluation. Nearly all of them were near telephone poles, water valve covers or appeared to be utility repairs. A few of the locations, however, were near recently fallen trees and probably unrelated to utilities.

Temporary asphalt patch in 2100 block of 37th Street NW.

DDOT promptly inspected each location. In 17 of 24 instances, officials assigned responsibility to utility companies: 12 for Pepco, 3 for Washington Gas and 2 for DC Water. DDOT assigned work orders to itself for the remaining 7, some of which were due to fallen trees and others for which the agency could not determine responsibility. Residents added 3 more locations later, which are pending further DDOT investigation.

Most of the agencies responsible for damaging the sidewalk restored several locations to their original state. Others no longer have a valid construction permit. For these, the utilities are required to apply for a new permit and complete the restoration in accordance with DDOT standards.

How are utilities held accountable for restoring sidewalks, streets or other public spaces? According to DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez, the agency has public space inspectors who "routinely monitor their respective wards for any public space work, whether done under permit or not."

Partial asphalt patch near water valve in 2100 block of Tunlaw Road NW.

Glover Park residents found 17 places where utilities hadn't properly repaired the sidewalks, meaning there could be hundreds of temporary or unfinished repairs citywide. DDOT says that they have enough inspectors, technology and training in place to make utilities responsible for their work, and does outreach work to get them to finish it.

Hernandez says that once reported, DDOT typically resolves sidewalk repair requests within 45 days, unless permitting processes or contractor mobilization cause delays. DDOT continues to hold monthly meetings with utility companies to coordinate work and highlight opportunities to ensure repairs are done on time and to their standards.

Does your neighborhood have sidewalks with unfinished utility company work? Have you reported the repairs to DDOT using SeeClickFix or 311? Have the issues been completely resolved within a timely manner?

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 25 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve. 


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Here's another problem that PEPCO, other utilities and the DC Public Utility Commission need to fix: removing multiple utility poles in the same location. As PEPCO has added higher poles, they don't always remove the old ones. They claim that other utilities (e.g., RCN, Verizon) have to move their wires to the new poles, so the result is that multiple poles remain bunched, sometimes for years. The result can be impaired sight lines for motorists and pedestrians at intersections and narrowed sidewalks. The DC Public Utility Commission has to insist that before PEPCO upgrades poles, the contractor is authorized to move all of the wires together (or the work has to be coordinated with each utility). The current result is unacceptable.

by Axel on Jul 8, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

How about getting Comcast and Verizon to clean up their ally infrastructure? Between Comcast lashing to anything that can hold a cable and the non-removal of dangling lines, our telecom infrastructure is shameful.

The DC PUC is useless in getting any response form these companies and seems to work as a representative of these companies rather than representing the district's interests.

by mm on Jul 8, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

This problem isn't limited to sidewalks.

Frankly, DDOT comes off trying to look like the "hero" now, but the fact that utilities and contractors getting away with it so often is indicative that DDOT is and has been dropping the ball...and badly.

How many times this year alone have I seen DDOT go through and repave a road, only to have someone dig it up a couple months later and put some half assed cold patch on the road that lasts for a week?

L street, which just a few months ago had been completely redone with the new bike lane, already has cuts and patches through it. Sherman ave too, which took years to complete.

DDOT says it has people inspect every site as the work is progressing, but if that is true then how do we end up with so many "patches" instead of full repairs.

I hate when people compare DC to some other jurisdiction but this is one of those cases where DDOT should take a page out of the book from Arlington, or FFX County who simply collects a fee prior to the work that is based on the amount it will cost to fix, then the County has it fixed rather than waiting on some fly by night contractor or useless utility to do it.

by Sidewalk on Jul 8, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

There are a number of rectangular metal plates embedded in the sidewalk in downtown Silver Spring. One in particular is on the edge of the handicap ramp on the corner of the sidewalk. One rainy morning, I witnessed two people slip and fall on that plate within the span of two minutes. One of the people was quite shaken up and had to be tended to by passerby.
I later called 311 (Montgomery County) to report the dangerous sidewalk, and was directed to Montgomery County police. They directed me back to 311.
I later sent emails to a couple of different email addresses I could find that seemed appropriate on the MoCo government website. I received no help from them either.
At the very least, I would at least hope that someone could apply some type of tacky surface to these plates before someone gets seriously injured, if nobody has yet. However, the reception I received was that this is someone elses' jurisdiction, regardless of who I tried to contact.

by engrish_major on Jul 8, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

This problem is prevalent all throughout Montgomery County. I too find sidewalks in Silver Spring completely ripped up by utility patches. These need to be fixed in kind, not with patches. Not only are the patches ruining streetscapes, they also can create an obstacle course for disabled people. Montgomery County / SHA needs to be forced into dealing with this terrible, rampant problem. What utility companies get away with is simply unacceptable.

by Murn on Jul 8, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

Same problem in Fairfax County.

by Fred on Jul 8, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

I reported a downed wire in my alleyway a few years ago. After calling around to Verizon and Pepco, I discovered that *all* of the tangled mess of wires were owned by Comcast (everything else was underground).

Even after reporting it, Comcast never came out to fix the wire. They're the *worst*

by andrew on Jul 8, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

Maybe we need to have some sort of zoning rules for wiring.

by SJE on Jul 8, 2013 5:49 pm • linkreport

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