Healthy economy, crowded easements causing more utility line breaks

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - One of Andrea Ford's biggest accomplishments was buying her own home. However, days after she moved in, she discovered her new home had a problem.

"My neighbors mentioned there were lots of plumbers here quite often," Ford said about her first visit with her neighbors.

Her father, Gary, brought out a plumber to check the lines but the plumber could not locate a problem.

A few weeks later, Gary received a call from crews replacing city sewer lines near Andrea's home. The crew said while they were digging up the sewer line, they discovered a communication line running straight through the pipe connecting Andrea's home to the city sewer.

"That would give anyone sewer problems," Gary said.

"I was in disbelief quite frankly. I was like, 'What are we going to do about this?'" Andrea said.

What happened to Andrea Ford isn't rare. 41 Action News has covered multiple gas and water line breaks as telecommunications crews work to install new fiber optic cable in the Kansas City area.

However, figures from the Missouri Public Service Commission show damage to utility lines is actually down in the state of Missouri.

In 2007, Missouri saw 3,422 utility line strikes by third-party excavators. In 2011, that number was just 1,963. But, when the economy tanked, construction dropped off as did the number of damaged lines.

Now that the economy has improved, construction and investment in new utility technology is increasing and causing an increase in line breaks. Experts credit those breaks to a growing challenge in the right of way. The "right of way" is the public easement where utility companies are allowed to place lines.

Each time a new technology or company comes to your home, another line has to fit in the small "right of way." Often, old unused lines from outdated technologies are just abandoned.

Murv Morehead with the American Public Works Association chairs the Utility and Right of Way committee. His group is currently studying how to solve growing congestion in the right of way.

"The more crowded that gets, the harder it is for the contractor to install a new line and then the greater the risk to existing lines," Morehead said.

Utility lines rarely go in the same direction unless they are in an area of new construction. Morehead showed 41 Action News pictures of what many contractors encounter in the right of way. He says sometimes those abandoned lines cause problems for utility locate crews.

"That signal that they induce on a line...it can jump from the line they intend it to be on and an abandoned line," Morehead explained.

His committee has been trying to brainstorm ways to handle abandoned utility lines, but it hasn't been an easy conversation. He said it isn't a "popular" topic with utility companies.

"It can be quite costly to remove those and in the process of removing those you can damage other utilities at the same time," Morehead said.

He said some communities in Europe have experimented with running lines through existing abandoned pipes. However, he says there is a lot of debate surrounding the safety of that practice as well.

Andrea Ford is thankful water crews discovered the underground mess by her home. She believes it would have cost her a lot of money and time to figure out what was wrong.

She said she was also lucky because since crews had already dug up the area, they repaired her line for free.

"I told my daughter go buy a lottery ticket because it was her lucky day," Gary said.

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