Street excavations created a traffic nightmare for drivers in downtown Spokane last summer.
While two competing telecommunications companies laid conduit for fiber-optic lines beneath nearly two miles of roads, drivers dodged open trenches, gutted lanes and fresh asphalt.
Along with the weather, the construction season is cooling off and the roadwork is almost done. But drivers may find the nightmare recurring next spring.
A federal law passed earlier this year cleared the way for many companies to vie for the same telecommunications market - and the same stretches of right of way.
That means another firm eager to offer telephone service and Internet access may want to open Spokane’s downtown streets again next year.
“The question is: How many (companies) are there going to be?” said a frustrated Mayor Jack Geraghty.
Taxpayers don’t pay hard cash for the roadwork repairs now, but they do in the long term, Geraghty said.
They pay now in terms of traffic delays and frustrations, he said. “There’s been incredible public inconvenience over this.”
More importantly, he said, “it’s probably damaged every downtown street.”
City managers - concerned about the long-term deterioration of streets - are revamping their standards for repaving the trenches that utilities dig.
Every cut into a street shortens its life span, said Brad Blegen, city construction director. “The more we patch our streets, the more opportunity for water to get into them.”
Nearly every city street has power, sewer and water lines lying beneath it.
“If more companies come in, … it’s going to be harder to find places for them to go,” said Blegen, adding downtown streets - where the companies most want to be create the most challenges.
Spokane isn’t alone in its struggle to balance the law with protecting streets.
“The challenge to cities is how do you balance the needs of telecommunications companies with the other people who have interests in that same right of way,” said Victoria Lincoln of the Association of Washington Cities.
The federal telecommunications act deregulated the industry, said Lincoln. Where most cities had one - maybe two - companies that offered telephone or computer services, now five or six can compete in the same market.
“The intent of the bill was to spur competition,” she said. “They wanted to make new technology available to more people, make the costs more competitive so that everybody would benefit.”
Cities manage the “public domain” - or right of way - where the telecommunications companies want to lay conduit for fiber optic lines, Lincoln said.
The new law says that cities can’t “be a barrier to entry to anyone who wants to do business,” she said. That means they can’t forbid a company from cutting into a street or charge a prohibitive fee for laying the lines.
Bob Beaumier - the assistant city attorney helping Spokane draft new standards for street cuts and repairs - said he doesn’t see the disaster some city officials fear.
“I’m no guru on this, but I don’t see the rush on the city of Spokane from a whole bunch of new providers …,” said Beaumier. “Not everyone with a jackhammer is going to be coming in to tear up our streets.”
Businesses won’t come into a saturated market, Beaumier said, adding the challenge is finding a way to get companies that enter the same market to work together to build infrastructure.
For instance, the city didn’t issue permits to Nextlink Washington or GST Lightwave Inc. until they coordinated last summer’s construction schedules.
Greg Green, president of Nextlink, admitted working together wasn’t easy. “We want our network not to look like our competitor’s,” he said.
In the end, Nextlink laid extra conduit and sold some of the space to GST, Green said.
Still lingering is the question of new standards aimed at lengthening the life of city streets.
Blegen said he’s drafting a policy that forces companies to patch an entire lane instead of just the narrow trench created when they open a street.
Officials also are considering making companies fork over extra dollars - besides permit fees - that would go into a pot for long-term street repair and resurfacing.
Lincoln, of the Association of Washington Cities, said the Legislature also will consider new laws this session.
“If you are using right of way … there has to be a process for compensation,” Lincoln said.
Nextlink president Green said he’s not opposed to extra fees, as long as all companies that cut into streets pay the same rate. “We’d be open to discussing the possibilities,” he said.
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