A cable runs through it 

Contractors laying a 12-inch-thick, fiber-optics cable under the tree-lined sidewalks of downtown's Wahsatch Avenue were forced to stop digging last week after nearby residents complained the work might be hurting the avenue's stately city-owned elms, maples and oaks.

The work was halted by city engineers, because the contractor, Utilx, of Denver, failed to notify the city forestry department that crews would be digging within feet of the city-owned trees.

Contractors are required to consult city foresters anytime they dig within 20 feet of Colorado Springs' trees. The notification is a condition of the contractor's excavation permit.

On the permit, contractors are asked whether or not they have consulted city foresters. "They checked the 'yes' box," said Tom Francese, programs supervisor for the streets division of the city's public works department.

"That's supposed to mean they followed the regulations of the permits and have contacted forestry," Francese added.

In this case, however, Utilx failed to notify city foresters until after area residents began asking questions about the work. North Wahsatch resident Judith Rice Jones said she called city engineers and foresters, fearing the work might damage the trees by cutting through their root systems.

"I'm afraid that we'll have huge tree loss in that location," said Rice Jones. "This is a huge excavation right next to some large, mature wonderful trees."

Area managers for Utilx did not return several calls to the company's Denver headquarters seeking comment.

For nearly a month, the telecommunications contractor has been digging numerous deep holes within 2 to 3 feet of some trees at the ends of each block of North Wahsatch Avenue.

Work crews used those pits to drill long, horizontal tunnels down the length of the block in which they then inserted the foot-thick fiber-optics cable, according to city engineers.

The cables are not for local use, however. National cable giant Level 3 is laying down the lines to connect service between several adjoining states, including Wyoming and New Mexico.

Though much of the work is being done under sidewalks, the digging has led to soil disruption around the trees and in planting areas between the sidewalk and the road.

After getting complaints from Rice Jones, city engineers contacted Utilx, who then called city forester Jim McGannon. But officials with the city's forestry department, who still have not inspected the work site, say they don't know that any damage has been done.

"The first we heard of this was last week," said McGannon.

McGannon and city street engineers allowed Utilx to resume working after a series of telephone consultations last week. City foresters had intended to inspect the site early this week, but those plans were scuttled by heavy snowfall, McGannon said.

Soil compaction by heavy equipment, or disruption to main root systems can hurt trees, but McGannon said there's no way to know how much damage is done until foresters inspect the site later this week.

McGannon said the forestry department cannot fine contractors for such oversights, but he said the city can send them a bill for any damage to city-owned property, including trees. The city forester said he allowed Utilx to continue work, because he felt the oversight was "an honest mistake."

But, he said, notification by contractors is important, because his staff isn't necessarily aware of all the many projects taking place on city right-of-ways at any given time.

So far, the city has not required Utilx to change how and where the cable is being laid along Wahsatch Avenue. But the city's Francese said the episode has given city road inspectors and private contractors a chance to review and improve enforcement of the notification policy.

"A meeting is scheduled to go over the policy to improve it so there's better communication in the future," he said.

Since then, area residents have also complained to city staffers about other issues related to the project. Most notably, Utilx was asked to stop parking its heavy equipment on city right-of-ways because large earth-moving gear can compress soil and damage tree root systems.

As for Rice Jones, she's left wondering why residents affected by the digging had no input over where and how the cable would be laid. As with most major projects in city right-of-ways, Utilx's permit was granted after a multi-month review from city engineers and utility personnel -- but with no input from affected residents.

"What public process did this go through?" Rice Jones wondered. "What alternatives were considered? Does the city or the citizens have a choice over how this is done?"


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