Bob Freudenthal

APWA advocacy focuses on respecting local control in Telecom Act rewrite

Bob Freudenthal
APWA President

APWA has always been, and will continue to be, an advocate for developing policies that ensure the safe and efficient management of public rights-of-way. As representatives of local governments and public works departments, our members often play a crucial role in managing local public rights-of-way, and in determining how local franchising supports that role.

Now, as the uses for Internet-based technologies continue to expand, Congress is considering a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act addressing, among other things, whether telecommunications companies interested in providing video services may obtain a national franchise. This is an issue directly impacting local control and management of public rights-of-way. Based on the effects that deregulation of telecommunications providers had on our rights-of-way in the 1990s, the thought of federal control over video franchising is a frightening one.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to submit testimony to Congress on behalf of APWA for a hearing addressing this practice of video franchising. In doing so, I urged our representatives to consider several important principles relating to local governments and rights-of-way management as they consider rewriting these sections of the nation's communications laws and policies.

The first principle is that local government officials have a fiduciary responsibility on behalf of the citizens we serve. We are obligated to manage public property in their interest, including the public rights-of-way, which are public assets with an estimated value of more than $7 trillion. Respect for local control and the longstanding authority of local governments to manage those rights-of-way is necessary to ensure their safe and efficient operation. As Congress considers updating national communications policy, it is vital that local governments and other public agencies retain their authority to fulfill these statutory obligations and duties related to managing public rights-of-way.

This local authority includes the ability to establish permit, location, inspection and pavement restoration controls and rights-of-way restoration; to encourage cooperation among, and develop scheduling and coordination mechanisms for, all rights-of-way users; to obtain and maintain accurate information for locating existing and new facilities in the public rights-of-way; to hold responsible parties accountable for the restoration of the public rights-of-way; and to charge and receive compensation for the use of the public rights-of-way.

The second principle is that local governments do support competition in communications services and technology. We embrace innovations that make competition possible in video, telephone and broadband services. Moreover, we encourage deployment of these technologies as rapidly as possible. However, as new communications technologies and services enter the marketplace, local governments must be kept whole and our authority to manage public rights-of-way preserved.

Preserving full local franchising authority is critically important to rights-of-way management. Franchises do not just provide permission to offer video services; they are the core tool local governments use to manage streets and sidewalks, provide for public safety and emergency response capability, enhance competition and collect compensation for private use of public land. Eliminating franchises will cause extensive disruption, undermine safety and deprive local government of the power to perform many of its basic functions.

Public agencies have the responsibility to keep public rights-of-way in a state of good repair and free of unnecessary encumbrances. The public expects local governments to ensure that deployment of new services does not result in potholes, traffic backups and congestion, damaged sidewalks, ruptured water or gas lines, disrupted electrical power or diminished community aesthetics, particularly with respect to managing above-ground versus below-ground installations.

The right to obtain and use land for public benefit is a longstanding tradition and is provided for by law. For more than a century, the concept of accommodating both publicly- and privately-owned utilities in the public rights-of-way has been recognized to be in the best public interest. As such, public rights-of-way are almost universally acquired and developed by public agencies for transportation routes, water supply, waste disposal, power distribution, communications and other critical services.

It is our duty and responsibility as public agencies, and similarly that of elected officials, to be good stewards of the public rights-of-way and to adopt reasonable ordinances that allow public officials to: manage the public rights-of-way on behalf of their citizens to ensure health, safety and convenience; manage the surface of the public rights-of-way to ensure structural integrity, availability, safety and a smooth street surface for travelers; manage the space below the surface to ensure safe and economical access for all current and future users of the rights-of-way; and manage the space above the surface, including the placement of overhead utility facilities, to accomplish efficient use of space and to minimize safety hazards and impact on community aesthetics.

As the pace of implementing new communications technologies accelerates, the extent of damages incurred by owners of both private and public utilities is sure to grow if local governments are not allowed to manage their rights-of-way. Managing public rights-of-way is complex, and decisions regarding management and control of local public rights-of-way belong to local governments. Each utility provider installs a separate system in its own unique location within the public rights-of-way. The systems are often installed on existing pole lines, in narrow trenches or in conduits that are bored into place. There is a correlation between the number of excavations and corresponding damage, and repeatedly cutting and repairing streets can permanently damage street pavement structures. Moreover, in the absence of compensation from utilities, taxpayers bear the burden of significantly increased street maintenance costs.

In conclusion, APWA supports competition in communications technologies and services, and their rapid deployment in the communities we serve. We support a balanced approach that encourages innovation while preserving local governments' longstanding authority to manage public rights-of-way and to receive fair and reasonable compensation for their use. We take this position because franchising authority is a core tool local governments need in order to manage rights-of-way in the interest of protecting public safety and infrastructure.

Standing on the verge of greatness
Challenges like these remind me of the importance of APWA's mission, and how proud I have been to serve it. This has been an amazing year that has gone by way too quickly while creating countless memories. I am extremely honored to have had the opportunity to represent the APWA membership as President, and I can think of no greater professional reward than the one I have experienced this year. The membership of this organization is simply the best assemblage of talent in our profession. As I have traveled throughout the association, I have been continually amazed at the passion, skill, and quality of character that its members exemplify. You, the individual member, are the strength of this organization, our chosen profession, and your respective community.

In addition to the members, I am also grateful and proud to have served with three dedicated and professional groups within our organization. I'm speaking of the APWA Board of Directors, the members of our various work groups (Technical Committees, standing committees, task forces, and alliance representatives) and our APWA staff. These individuals are gifted professionals who exemplify the positive attributes of public servants, and I wish to thank them for bringing value to the process, and in so doing, improving the quality of life for our world. You do make a difference.

While it has been a fun year, I would be remiss if I didn't note that it has also been a year of change and challenges. In 2006, many of our members experienced great personal loss through natural disaster or tragedy. Hurricane Katrina and its effects on the Gulf Coast region will be a part of our lives for many years, and the public works professionals in that region will be integral to the successful renewal of that area. I can assure you that it is an emotionally uplifting moment when you can visit the region, and see their determination and dedication to rebuilding things even better than before. It will be a great day when we open the 2008 Congress in New Orleans and honor our commitment to be a part of that process.

While on the subject of Congress, I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of the KC Metro and partner chapters in stepping forward to address the challenge of the 2006 Congress in Kansas City. This group, as well as our APWA staff, has done a spectacular job in getting this year's event ready and I am excited to be a part of "The Best Show in Public Works." Please come be a part of the event.

Our association also lost two great leaders during 2006. Jack Pittis, Region IX Director, and Bob Browell, Director of Chapter Relations, were honorable men bringing leadership, skill, and a profound personal touch to APWA. As we move forward, our mission will forever be shaped by their legacy.

Our association has been active in determining the APWA vision for the future. Our efforts include development of a Strategic Plan; the review and subsequent implementation of changes to our governance structure thanks to the hard work of the Governance Task Force; the implementation of the first certification efforts; the continued advances in our advocacy of public works issues; and the maintenance of APWA's sound fiscal position. We are continuing to look for ways to improve the services to our members, thus adding value to being a part of the APWA team. This is the best recruitment tool that we can offer to potential members—the value of APWA to our existing members. The next generation of leaders is out there waiting for us to bring them along and to inspire them to greatness. We simply must make the investment necessary to reach them.

At the beginning of this year I stated that my desire was to inspire others to become involved public works professionals, and to make a difference in the life of at least one person that I hadn't met yet. I hope that I have met that goal. I certainly know that I have been the recipient of true inspiration from the many people I have had the privilege of meeting this year. I am blessed to have had this opportunity and I thank you for making a difference in my life.

Finally, a word of thanks to my family, the staff and leadership of the Hendersonville Utility District, and the members of the Tennessee Chapter. My greatest accomplishment in life will always be my family. My greatest mentor remains my dad and I miss him tremendously, but the model is still there for my benefit. The greatest support comes from those closest to you, and that support has come from my family, Hendersonville Utility District, and the Tennessee Chapter. I'm so proud to be a part of your world and I hope that you are proud to be a part of mine. These people are simply the best, and I am humbled by their support of me during this year.

APWA stands on the verge of greatness, and with the capable leadership of our incoming President, Bill Verkest, I'm sure we will reach it. I'm ready to assist in any way possible, and I hope that you are as well. Remember, at the end of the day it's not about how much you made or completed, but that you made a positive difference in the world around you. Let's make a positive difference together!