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Councilor Hennigan Tackles Potholes' Inscrutable Malice, DPW's Bloated Slush Fund

by Paul McMorrow - Weekly Dig - May 5th, 2004

Boston City Councilor Maura Hennigan may be close to finally harpooning her white whale. A year ago, Hennigan fell into a gaping pothole along Blue Hill Avenue while marching in the Haitian Unity Day parade, sustaining a broken ankle. Incensed that Boston Department of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner Joseph Casazza would allow such dangerous monstrosities to pock the city's streets, she promptly adopted the eradication of the dreaded pothole as her personal, some say monomaniacal, crusade.

Now it appears that the hunt may be nearing endgame. Not only has Hennigan pledged to repair the city's innumerable potholes, she has also sighted what appears to be the fat DPW slush fund lurking behind the roads' widespread deterioration.

Hennigan has found that as much as 80 percent of potholes and other hazards on the city's streets and sidewalks are caused by improper temporary patching of utility excavations. When utility companies dig in Boston's streets and sidewalks, they must obtain a permit from the DPW. As part of that process, they agree to temporarily patch the hole they create and to pay the city to permanently repair the road. Street repairs relating to utility excavations are completely funded by the utility companies and do not involve a cent of taxpayer money or the DPW's funds.

These temporary patches fail, Hennigan argues, because the city fails to provide reasonable incentives for utility companies and their contractors to make them properly: Boston's Inspectional Services Department (ISD) has never issued a citation for shoddy backfilling, and, as a result, utility contractors disbelieve that there will be consequences for improper work.

According to the state's Department of Telecommunications and Energy, which sets standards for utilities excavation, temporary patches are supposed to hold for a minimum of two years. But Hennigan claims that, in many instances, the city does not permanently repair these areas in a timely manner. So even if the temporary patches were constructed properly (utility companies maintain that they are; Hennigan believes many are not), they would likely morph into potholes before the DPW took it upon itself to make a permanent repair.

So on February 24, Hennigan filed a City Council hearing order, asking Casazza to provide an inventory of temporary repairs that need to be permanently fixed and ... provide a schedule for the permanent repair of the remaining inventory. Despite delaying the hearing at Casazza's request, the DPW commissioner failed to produce the requested inventory.

It's really amazing to me that the order was filed in February, and the hearing was postponed, and despite all of that, we didn't get all the information we wanted, which was an inventory of all the hazards in the city, Hennigan fumed. It's unacceptable to me that here we are in April, and the Commissioner says there will be no list for three months. By then, it'll be the end of construction season ...

How can we have confidence in a system that we have plenty of money to fix but no information on what needs to be fixed?

Hennigan's consternation derives as much from DPW's and ISD's reluctance to enforce the city's backfilling regulations as it does from the apparent fact that sloth, not weather, allows most of the city's potholes to thrive. As of last summer, Hennigan said, the permanent road repair fund that utility companies pay into had swollen to $22 million. Yet the DPW deliberately chooses not to fix the roads. The city deliberately chooses to hoard this money. It's totally unacceptable. What they're doing is wrong.

Although Casazza couldn't tell Hennigan how many temporary patches on the city's streets need to be permanently fixed (DPW issues as many as 80,000 street excavation permits per year, Hennigan says), he did tell her that it's DPW policy to wait until the entire street falls into disrepair before repairing it. But in your and my lifetimes, some of these repairs will never be done, the councilor said.

While Casazza waits for Boston's streets to degenerate into cratered moonscape, temporary patches become public safety hazards. And as utilities continue to dig up streets and pay into the repair fund, while the DPW refuses to use that money to make repairs, the number of patches continues to grow.

Furthermore, the DPW's pothole fund exists outside of the city's budget, and thus, because DPW's method for filling potholes is an administrative function, Hennigan cannot force Casazza to unhand the sweet teat his department has been suckling. Nor would it be easily apparent if money has been skimmed off the top of the fund, as Casazza has yet to tell Hennigan how much money the city has in its road repairs fund. Casazza could not tell the Dig much of anything, as he failed to return repeated calls for comment.

Hennigan has suggested that, in light of Casazza's reluctance to comply with his duties to keep the city's streets safe, the city places the onus of making permanent repairs on the utility companies. It doesn't cost the city a dime - they're paying for repairs that aren't being made now, she says. It should be seamless - you dig it, you fix it. Otherwise, it's negligent ...

The way it's done now is designed to set up this unending pot of money ... I want to be reasonable, but I feel like I've been more than reasonable. He's had since February. Is it that he doesn't know what needs to be done? That he doesn't care? Neither is acceptable.

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