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Georgetown can't wait
(Published June 18, 2001)

Many of the most heavily traveled blocks of Georgetown — for pedestrians and vehicles — are currently among the least safe places to be in the nation’s capital.

Occasional flying manhole covers, accompanied by shooting flames or billowing smoke, are no longer a joke. The frequency, intensity and randomness of this problem have combined to make it a major public safety hazard.

It is miraculous that no one has suffered serious physical injury — yet.

And it is shameful that government officials and managers of Potomac Electric Power Co. have dragged their feet for more than a year without getting permanent repairs underway. PEPCO shareholders and ratepayers should be livid over the local power company’s performance.

At press time, with multimillion dollar losses mounting for closed Georgetown businesses and traffic snarls reaching beyond the District into Northern Virginia, officials tell us that permanent repairs to the antiquated and apparently ill-maintained underground power lines along the M Street NW corridor will not begin for another 45 to 60 days.

Why? Apparently aesthetics in the Georgetown Historic District are more important in some people’s minds than ensuring the public’s safety and a reliable source of power to hundreds of businesses that feed our entire city’s economy and tax base. Both government and business officials tell us that an effort to coordinate plans for a Georgetown "streetscape" beautification project with PEPCO’s need to dig up the streets has been causing the delays.

Apparently, these folks haven’t appreciated the full impact of shutting down power to nearly a 50-block section of Georgetown — including a hospital, four major hotels and numerous restaurants — for the better part of four days.

And while Mayor Anthony Williams is clamoring to help affected small businesses by seeking eligibility for Small Business Administration low-interest loans, we think someone should reimburse these businesses for their uninsured losses rather than increasing their business liabilities with loans.

Georgetown’s business community is suffering losses that have been multiplied by PEPCO’s failure to expeditiously acknowledge and repair its distribution problems. We seem to recall PEPCO attempting to blame the initial Georgetown eruptions on Washington Gas workers.

Government officials also are at fault for failing to force PEPCO, which is a regulated public utility, to take immediate actions to ensure reliable and safe power distribution in the District of Columbia.

Must we wait for a manhole cover to explode into the gas tank of an idling tour bus at an M Street traffic light before officials get serious about ensuring the public’s safety?

Georgetown’s problem is the District of Columbia’s problem. The disruption of power and business and traffic and tourism — in the height of the city’s tourist season — affects all D.C. residents and a significant number of visitors to the nation’s capital.

Officials need to deal with the immediate public safety threat posed by the randomness of Georgetown’s underground power problems. If it means temporarily stringing poles and wires in the historic neighborhood while the lengthy permanent fix is done, PEPCO and Georgetown should bite the bullet and do it.

Georgetown — and the rest of D.C. — can’t wait.


Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator