S.W. 21st and Wanamaker: Utility conflict kept contractor, city of Topeka from proceeding with project

Topekans Mark E. Stubbs and Leo Hafner voiced dismay this month after utility conflicts caused a street replacement project at one of Topeka’s busiest intersections to be stalled for weeks in the middle of prime construction season.


“We deserve reasonable construction management by the city — its subcontractors should be able to do their jobs in a timely manner,” Stubbs, the owner of Party America at 2010 S.W. Westport Drive, wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Capital-Journal regarding the nearby project at S.W. 21st and Wanamaker Road.

Topekan Hafner indicated in a Capital-Journal letter to the editor that Cox Communications apparently failed to move a utility pole from the intersection in a timely manner, and suggested the city should have had the construction crew do that.

But Kansas law prevents the city from doing that, Topeka public works director Jason Peek said this week.

Officials from the city and the construction company, Topeka-based Bettis Asphalt &Construction, said they were powerless to continue with the project until the utilities involved took care of the issue.

“Once a utility conflict has been identified, both the city and the contractor have no control as to when the utility actually removes the conflict,” said Rich Eckert, an attorney for Bettis. “These delays are every bit as frustrating to the city and Bettis as they are the traveling public.”

Eckert, who was Shawnee County counselor from 1999 to 2016, said that when a governing entity issues a contractor a notice to proceed with carrying out a street project, “it is anticipated that all utilities have been removed.”

However, he said, “in my experience, it is rare on a large public construction project that all utilities are actually clear.”

Topeka city engineer Brian Faust said the city often runs into utility conflicts on street reconstruction and widening projects.

Perhaps nine times out of 10, Peek said, the city and the utilities can deal with utility conflicts while the contractor’s still carrying out other parts of the project. But that wasn’t possible at S.W. 21st and Wanamaker, Faust said.

Eckert said work at the intersection was stopped in June 11 when utility infrastructure owned by Cox Communications, Kansas Gas Service and AT&T were discovered there.

All three subsequently promised to be clear of the intersection by July 27, but it wasn’t cleared until Aug. 7, the day Bettis resumed construction, Eckert said.

Mandy Wilbert, senior manager of public affairs for Cox, the last utility to clear, stressed that it “had a place in line” among utilities removing its infrastructure.

“We were notified at the end of June that it was our turn and we began our preparation for the move, but this type of movement takes time,” she said. “Most notably, we have to notify customers of potential impacts to their services on a move like this when we are splicing fibers. As soon as we were made aware that the project was ready for our move, our team expedited the timeline to get our portion of the project completed as quickly as possible with minimal impact to our customers.”

Cox was required to carry out “a thoughtfully planned out process in coordination with many players — construction crews, other providers and municipalities,” Wilbert said.

Going forward, Peek asked the public to be patient with delays linked to roadway improvement projects.

“We ask for their patience, and we definitely understand that it’s important to get it done,” he said.


Contact reporter Tim Hrenchir

at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.