LAUREL – Usually, roller coasters are fun, but it’s no laughing matter when the description is applied to public streets. Councilwoman Deni Taveras used the phrase at a joint meeting of the Prince George’s County Council Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee, along with its Montgomery County counterpart, the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment […]
LAUREL – Usually, roller coasters are fun, but it’s no laughing matter when the description is applied to public streets.
Councilwoman Deni Taveras used the phrase at a joint meeting of the Prince George’s County Council Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) committee, along with its Montgomery County counterpart, the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment committee, when talking about the poor quality of road resurfacing done by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). The two committees meet together each year in order to discuss issues of mutual concern, including WSSC, which the two councils are charged with regulating.
“I look at any of those pictures (of road resurfacing problems) and that’s actually a good picture compared to some of the streets where I live. I feel like driving through some of those streets is like a roller coaster ride,” Taveras said.
Council members from both counties expressed similar concerns.
Roger Berliner, vice president of the Montgomery County Council, said he was told about 75 percent of the county department of transportation’s patching work is fixing up poor WSSC jobs.
“Not okay,” he said. “I ask you to start thinking about this differently.”
Prince George’s Councilwoman Mary Lehman said she, too, had many complaints about the quality of WSSC’s work.
“This issue of street resurfacing has long been a really, really sore subject in my area of the county,” she said. “In fairness, other utilities are to blame as well, but I personally think WSSC is the biggest culprit. I think WSSC is by far the worst.”
Berliner would like WSSC to leave all the patching work to the county, who would then bill WSSC for their services. As it stands, customers are paying WSSC to do the patching through their rates and the new infrastructure reinvestment fee, and also paying the county, through taxes, to do the same patching.
Berliner’s fellow councilman, Tom Hucker, also suggested creating a dedicated fund to use for repairs to roads damaged by WSSC, which Taveras seconded.
WSSC itself has some new strategies in place to try to address the issue, according to Joe Mantua, deputy general manager for operations. He said the major causes of the problem are poor-performing contractors, the sequencing of the work that allows contractors to move to a new street before completing the work on the current one, and issues with inspections and enforcement.
To address these issues, Mantua said WSSC has changed provisions in the contract to limit the amount of work that can be going on at any one time. Additionally, in January the WSSC commissioners voted to switch from a low-bid to a best value approach to selecting contractors.
“So what we’re trying to do here is minimize our risk for poor-performing contractors,” he said.
Mantua also said for work done with in-house staff and not contractors, WSSC is making sure to also do complete design work in-house and use the same inspection staff they use for contractors to ensure consistency.
On the issue of inspections, and the compaction problems that result from improper ones, Mantua said the problem was the administrative workload placed on project managers.
“Some of the problem comes from our contract managers, the technical managers, not having the time to be in the field doing the detailed inspection that’s required,” he said.
WSSC has created a new position called the administrative contract manager who will take on some of the administrative tasks to free up field staff’s time.
“These are changes that are ongoing, that we’re monitoring,” Mantua said.
The changes come after a change in leadership at WSSC, with Carla Reid taking over as general manager/chief executive officer. She said one of the main problems she’s found in her short tenure is the need to increase employees’ empathy for the hassles experienced by the counties.
“I think it’s just heightening that awareness we might be doing something that is technically correct, but if it does not meet the needs of our ratepayers and our stakeholders then we have not fully done our job,” she said.
Hucker was pleased by the answer.
“Bravo. I don’t know if I’ve heard the word ‘empathy’ in the bi-county hearing room in the last 10 years. If that sets the baseline expectation for your goals, I think we have the opportunity to see a lot of progress,” he said.
Todd Turner, THE committee chair, said he was also pleased by the emphasis Reid is putting on customer service.
“When you’re the monopoly in town, you don’t necessarily have to have a focus on that, but I think that would go a long way to improving what people believe about the services they are getting,” he said.
Turner said a positive customer perception makes it easier for the county councils to approve WSSC requests, like the rate increase currently included in the utility’s budget proposal.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen took issue with that rate increase. WSSC admitted its rates have increased by 60 percent since 2003, which Floreen finds unsustainable.
“I am very concerned about the assumption we can continue to raise rates. On the county council there is no assumption that we continue to raise taxes to serve our community, and I believe WSSC needs to approach rate-making in a similar fashion,” she said.
Turner agreed, saying WSSC, like any organization, should look at its internal costs to see what can be streamlined to save money.
“From the Prince George’s County Council perspective, obviously over the last year or so we are trying to get our house in order in regards to the financial situation in the county,” he said. “That should be part of your evaluation as the new GM. That’s the rub.”
But many council members left the meeting feeling relatively positive, viewing WSSC’s progress as steps in the right direction.
“This is a great opportunity given that you’re new to the position and this is a new day. So let’s work together to fix this,” Taveras said.