Members of the Mobile City Council are hoping an ordinance amendment to require utility companies and others to place plastic identification tags on asphalt patches will help the city better regulate cuts made to public streets.
The amendment, discussed last week at a meeting of the City Council’s public services committee, would help city officials keep track of which utility made a particular patch after cutting into the pavement and how long a particular patch has been there, committee chairman Fred Richardson said.
The original ordinance requires utilities to place a temporary patch over any stretch of roadway they cut into and after six months replace it with a permanent patch, Richardson said, adding that it sometimes takes utilities longer to replace the temporary patches.
“The temporary patch sinks after six months,” Richardson said. “The street then starts to sink.”
When the patches begin to sink or sag, Richardson said the city doesn’t have a good way to quickly identify who is responsible for the patch.
“We don’t have any way of knowing who cut the streets and where,” he said. “We’re not keeping good records.”
That’s where the new amendment comes in, which in turn would help the city better enforce the law already on the books.
Committee members — Richardson, Joel Daves and C.J. Small — voted in favor of moving forward with the ordinance, after a few tweaks by council attorney Jim Rossler and City Engineer Nick Amberger. The first read of the amendment could come as early as the March 7 City Council meeting, Richardson said.
Rossler said the small, three-legged plastic tag would be color-coded according to which utility company patched the street, and include two numbers to identify the year it was placed and the name of the company.
“When they get to the final layer of asphalt, they would take the tag and push it down in the not-yet-set asphalt at zero grade,” he said.
Richardson said he heard about the program while in Pittsburgh at a National League of Cities conference, but Rossler said similar ideas have sprouted in New Orleans, Charlotte and Boston.
The tags must be placed on all temporary and permanent patches, according to the ordinance; placement of the tags depends on the size of the patch.
For a small patch — less than 50 feet — one tag should be placed in the center. For a patch up to 100 feet, one tag should be placed on each end of the patch, a foot from the edge. For a patch of 100 to 400 feet, a tag should be placed on each end and one tag should be placed in the center. In addition, a tag should be placed at each intersection. On any patch greater than 400 feet, according to the amendment, one tag should be placed at each end of the patch and at 200-foot intervals. A tag should also be placed at every intersection.
Daves said he supported the measure because it was successful in a number of other cities and is an example of best practices.
The move would also allow city officials to give residents more information about utility work when a cut into a street is needed, especially if the company is working on a street that had been recently improved, Daves said.
“The cost of doing it on utilities is very modest,” Daves said. “It will provide additional information to constituents, council members and engineers at a very modest cost for the utility.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich, who attended the committee meeting, said the council is “not reinventing the wheel” and called it “just a tool.” If there’s a problem, she said, they’d know where to call and it could help “streamline” information.
Councilman John Williams was skeptical the program would work at all. He called it a politically convenient move.
“It’s a bureaucratic response to a real problem, but it won’t fix anything,” he said. “The issue is about quality patches.”
Williams said he would have preferred language that would hold utility companies financially responsible for cut-street restoration.
“Nobody listened to me,” Williams said of the amendment. “This thing was so far down the road by the time it got to print.”
The move would have an impact on utilities such as the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, which has to fix aging infrastructure underneath the city’s roadways.
MAWSS spokeswoman Barbara Shaw wrote in a statement sent via email that the utility often has to make unplanned cuts into city streets in order to be responsive to customer needs.
“The city told us they could not use the permit information to identify the cuts so they need utilities to insert plastic tags in the pavement so they can easily identify which utility did the work,” she wrote. “We have no choice but to comply with this request.
“New regulations and fees only increase our cost of doing business. Since we do not receive funds from the city, or any other source other than our ratepayers, these increases have to be passed along to our customers.”