Downtown intersection remains closed during sewer-damage dispute with fiber-optic company

Downtown intersection remains closed during sewer-damage dispute with fiber-optic company

The intersection of Oak and Washington streets on the eastern edge of Downtown has been closed for more than five months as the city and a fiber-optic cable company, represented by a former Columbus City Council president, have tussled over who is responsible for paying to repair the collapse of a sewer line there.

Work to fix the collapsed clay sewer line and the 25-by-25-foot sinkhole it created is scheduled to start Monday. Streets and intersections get closed all the time for work. But city officials, and residents and business people, haven’t seen anything like this: an intersection closed since before the last school year ended.

“I’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude,” said John Newsome, the city’s sewers and drains administrator who has been with the city for 11 years. The city has received calls and emails asking when the work will be done.

Newsome is not sure. “We won’t know until we start.” He expects the work to cost about $75,000, which will be billed to the fiber-optic company. It’s unclear whether the company will pay it.

For the record: The intersection of Oak and Washington has been closed to traffic since May 16, when a Columbia Gas crew discovered a void under the pavement. A city crew with a video camera found at least four fiber-optic conduits crossed through the storm sewer, causing the collapse, Newsome said.

Citynet, a company based in Bridgeport, West Virginia, owns the conduits. It is arguing that it bought the conduits after they were installed and should not be charged for the repair work.

But Citynet didn’t use that argument for months in discussions with the city.

Citynet’s attorney is Michael C. Mentel, a former Columbus City Council president and council member from 1999 through 2010.

Mentel said Citynet had no comment on the situation beyond its correspondence with the city, and he had not had any discussions about it with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

The Dispatch asked for all emails and correspondence regarding the problem from the Columbus mayor’s and utilities office.

In an Aug. 9 letter, the city demanded that Citynet repair the sewer by Aug. 25. The city said Citynet never responded.

So in a Sept. 11 letter to Citynet, Assistant City Attorney Andrew Miller wrote that Citynet has not taken “any action whatsoever toward remedying the damage it has caused.” The letter said the city will begin work on or after Sept. 18 and Citynet should remove its fiber-optic lines.

But Citynet didn’t do that. The city now will move the fiber-optic lines as it does the work, though not remove them.

The emails show Mentel requesting photos, records and other documents from the city’s utilities department that the city was relying upon to establish that Citynet is responsible for the sewer damage. Utilities spokesman George Zonders replied on July 11 that the city was providing a video from the sewer.

Two email chains among members of the city attorney’s office and utilities officials were heavily redacted. Miller cited attorney-client privilege as a reason for the redactions.

Miller said Mentel’s former political status has not swayed the negotiations. He said Mentel understands the urgent need to open the intersection. Mentel’s lone political contribution since 2013 to a city official was for $250 to now City Council President Zach Klein in 2014.

Oak and Washington is far from the busiest intersection in the city. But people who work at the Motorists Insurance tower on East Broad Street used it regularly before it was blocked off, as did visitors to the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Library and those traveling to businesses at Oak and South 18th streets, including Yellow Brick Pizza.

Motorists has been kept informed about the status of the repairs, Motorists Vice President Mike Lisi said in an email.

According to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, 5,096 vehicles a day used South Washington Street just south of Broad Street in 2015. The last traffic count closer to Oak and Washington was done in 1992, when just 1,802 vehicles used Washington just north of Oak.

Five people contacted the city’s 311 system to complain about the stalled work, with four of them calling twice.

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