Longboat Key leaders say islandwide utilities project will be closely monitored to avoid striking gas, water lines.
A pair of gas-line breaks since late June, and a water main break weeks earlier, upset normal life for hours on Longboat Key, but town leaders say residents shouldn't worry about the qualifications of the contractor set to soon begin the town's years-long project to bury utility cables underground.
The three interruptions in utility service were caused by contractors working along the Gulf of Mexico Drive right of way, an area in which the town must cede oversight to state authorities, town officials said. CDM Smith, the company selected by the town for its $49.1 million utilities project throughout the island, which is expected to kick off this month and run for more than three years, said its workers bring an extra bit of familiarity to their task.
Project Manager/Town Consultant Mark Porter of CDM Smith said the town’s underground utilities project will have significantly more oversight than an operation spearheaded by independent contractors.
“When you’re in bed with the town for three years, you won’t see those kind of damages,” Porter said.
TECO Peoples Gas said it's still investigating the July line break but routinely seeks reimbursement for repair costs from contractors that cause damage.
The most recent break
The July 10 gas line break, which took place in the 6500 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive, was reported around 11:30 a.m.. It prompted the fire department to clear the area and even evacuate residents in homes as well as construction workers in the immediate vicinity. Both lanes of the road were closed until about 3:45 p.m., then it became a one-lane road for a period before the two lanes reopened.
Fire vehicles and staff from Longboat, Sarasota County, Cedar Hammock and West Manatee responded, according to Fire Chief Paul Dezzi. The first fire unit on the scene reported gas spewing from the ground.
“One every week’s way too often.” – James Linkogle
“Upon arrival of special operations from the Sarasota County Fire Department, a hazmat team was established assisting TECO, who arrived on scene quickly, with the mitigation of the incident,” Dezzi said. “Due to the heat and long expected duration of the operation, command requested two engines from Manatee County, which were sent immediately.”
TECO Peoples Gas teams dug approximately 100 feet in both directions of the breach and after some work were able to clamp the gas line. The fire department completed air monitoring to ensure there were no dangerous pockets of gas and then returned to service.
Dezzi said the break was caused by Comcast subcontractors doing some excavation work in the area. Public Works Projects Manager James Linkogle said the subcontractor working for Comcast was repairing a bad cable in the ground when the gas-line break took place.
“The contractor evidently got off course and hit the gas line,” Linkogle said.
Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for TECO, reiterated that the line broke as a result of work by the Comcast contractors, but the situation is pending investigation, so TECO has yet to pursue compensation.
“If someone has damaged our line, then we do seek compensation,” Jacobs said.
She also explained how TECO responds to circumstances like this.
“We get alerted to the gas line break, sometimes from the public, sometimes from first responders, we dispatch a technician, they come and assess the situation and they work to make things safe, and then we evaluate the line break and we make repairs,” Jacobs said.
The June 27 break
Two weeks prior, on June 27, both lanes were shut down on the island’s southern end due to a gas line break in the area of Bay Isles Parkway. Drivers took a detour for several hours while TECO and the fire department repaired the problem. Underground boring equipment hit the gas line.
Linkogle said that contractors working in the Florida Department of Transportation right of way under FDOT permits were installing some Verizon fiber conduits. Jacobs said this line break was caused by Frontier Communications, and that TECO is currently pursuing compensation. Confusion about Frontier versus Verizon comes from Frontier having acquired the Verizon Fios network in three states, including Florida.
Moreover, a pipe break in May close to the intersection of Gulf of Mexico Drive and General Harris Street caused by a private contractor's underground work forced the town to circulate a boil-water advisory for people nearby. The advisory lasted roughly a day. Water for “drinking, cooking, making ice, brushing teeth, or washing dishes must be boiled,” a town statement read.
Underground utilities project impact
With the town set to embark on a three-and-a-half year, $49.1-million project bringing utilities underground, gas line breaks caused by vastly smaller operations occurring on a biweekly basis are troubling.
Dezzi acknowledged why the soon-to-come, long-term digging is disquieting in light of multiple line breaks.
“As we continue to do undergrounding, this will continue to happen,” he said.
Linkogle understood why these line breaks could be disturbing.
“One every week’s way too often,” he said.
He conceded the possibility of line breaks during the underground utilities endeavor, but said “we’re gonna do everything we can to prevent it.”
He also highlighted a key difference between independent contractors doing work in the town, out of the control of the town's leadership, and the town’s own contractors.
“We hired what we consider to be a good contractor, we know that they’ll have good supervisors on site, we’ll have construction observers on site, we are going to conduct weekly construction process meetings to help mitigate any impacts for these as we go through our projects,” Linkogle said. “That doesn’t always occur when DOT issues permits for other utility work in the right of way.”