Asphalt Jungle

Welcome to Monday morning at the corner of Hermosa and Peavy. It's a mess.

Approach the ravaged intersection like a crime scene: There's one deep wound along the southwest corner, a 3-foot-long, 18-inch-deep pothole half filled with water. There's a collapsed square of temporary asphalt in the center of the street and a newer carpet of asphalt spread on the northwest corner that will look like the collapsed section if it's not soon replaced. The traffic light, replete with a bird's nest in the pocket that holds the green light, has been jerry-rigged along hanging phone lines because the underground feed that powers it has been cut.

What the hell happened?

Over the weekend a contractor tunneled a cable line under the street. During that procedure a water main was nicked. The city's water department dug a trench to determine how bad the leak was. "They were looking for a leak, and they sure found it," says David Knight, electrical supervisor for the city's public works department. "I heard it was like a geyser out here." Knight was there to fix the line to the traffic signal, which was accidentally cut by the water department while it rooted around trying to fix its pipe. The contractor was nowhere to be seen.

There is no accounting for the foot-and-a-half-deep lagoon. It was just a simple case of seeping water undercutting support and--voilà--a little sinkhole is born, sometimes within hours.

In the center of this municipal cluster fuck is construction inspector Ray Wahlquist. There's plenty on his plate for Monday, but this stop at the tortured corner was not on his official list of about two dozen sites. He lives nearby, and when he drove by the intersection Sunday night he knew something had to be done. The next morning he was there, calling the water department to make sure the new patch would be replaced with something permanent, notifying street department repairmen to get the lagoon patched before rush hour and trying to track down the contractor to both scold him and get a handle on what was happening elsewhere.

"The infrastructure in Dallas is ancient," Wahlquist says. "It's a constant battle to maintain."

Wahlquist's job is easy to explain in theory: make sure that myriad contractors and city departments hacking at the streets do it safely and leave the pavement in good shape. In reality he is the point man for the city, responding to residents' complaints, finding problems by driving around and alerting (and often coordinating) repair work between various city entities. He and his fellow inspectors are the primary contact between departments, citizenry and contractors. His job is complicated by never-ending surges of street work, from booming telecom lines downtown to crumbling gas mains near Mesquite.

"We're the Marine Corps. We're the first ones in," he says.

You'd think a growing city like Dallas would have an army of inspectors to make sure the streets were passable. You'd be wrong, unless you consider the city's seven construction inspectors an army. Wahlquist is responsible for a district that ranges from Preston Road to the city of Mesquite, from the edge of Plano to the neighborhood of Lakewood. He puts 140 miles a day on his city-issued truck. There are on average 8,000 permits for street cuts a year, cuts made by water and gas utilities, cable TV installers and telecommunications companies.

Every trench dug to bury a gas pipe or fiber-optics cable weakens a street, chopping years off its life span. New laws opened the floodgates on street cuts, and the city has been slow to respond. The backlog of street cuts monitoring increases the chances that temporary asphalt fixes become permanent potholes large enough to swallow children.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act stated that communities couldn't obstruct competition among the companies vying to sell telephone, cable and Internet service. If one company is allowed to bury its cable beneath the streets, all are entitled to the same access. A nationwide frenzy followed passage of the act, and Dallas officials say the worst isn't quite behind us.

"We're still seeing increases in fiber optics," says David Dybala, director of the Public Works and Transportation Department. "We don't think we've seen the peak of activity."

Added to the inspector's mix are larger projects, like a state-mandated survey of TXU gas pipelines, a visual inspection that can tear up a thousand feet of street at once. When an irate 311 caller needs to vent at a city employee, the inspectors are the ones who hear it. In the face of these obstacles, in October the city increased the number of inspectors from five to eight. One position still remains unfilled.

"We're totally overwhelmed," says Wahlquist. "What we do isn't high-profile enough. During the last 15 years we've been cut in half, or more. We're not a priority."

The rules by which the inspectors play have changed, effective March 1, when amendments to a city ordinance took effect. The new generation ordinance was meant to clarify its brutally ambiguous ancestor, which left a lot of wiggle room for fights between utilities and city staff. It took five years of planning between the city and utilities to hash out the changes, says Rick James, the construction superintendent and immediate superior to the inspectors.

Among other things, the new ordinace allows the city to hold or deny permits for specific reasons, such as previous screwups, and ups the range of fines for making cuts without a permit from $25-$500 to $500-$2,000.

When Wahlquist finds a contractor for Southwestern Bell cutting open a street without a permit, as he did that grim Monday morning, he'll be able to bring more force to bear against them, possibly helping deny them a future permit. Then again, without enough street inspectors, a contractor without a permit will never get caught. New laws mean nothing without people to enforce them.

The ordinance has some fairly ho-hum parts, like the $25 million insurance policy the city requires a utility to invest in (a legacy of last year's massive downtown water-main burst) and a decrease in the time those awful metal road plates can stay in place, dropping the routinely violated 15-day limitation to 14 days. And it has some possible stinkers, like a five-year limited warranty on the responsibility of a utility for construction done on its behalf.

On Monday morning such changes are taken in the same context as orders from high command are taken by foot soldiers. It's accepted as the rules, and the ground situation remains woefully frantic. The understaffing remains chronic; Knight's underground conduit crew, the only one in town that puts up and maintains traffic and school crossing lights, was cut from five men to three several years ago.

Wahlquist feels the pinch, too. Standing with a cheek full of tobacco, he scans a street that looks alarmingly like Edward James Olmos' face and sighs. The bulk of his Monday is staring him down, his list of sites and emergency 311 calls waits in his truck.

"People say, 'Well, you have a job with the city. There's no stress there.' But there is," he says. "This is a slow day for me. I mean, I like to stay busy. It makes the day go by quicker. But it's not so good for the driving public."

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