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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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February 20, 2018

A Very Expensive Pothole

The State of New York owns a pit full of fiber optic cables in front of my house

Right outside the door of my house, out in the street where the cars make right turns to go up the hill, is a manhole cover.  I can’t help but think about it all the time whether I want to or not because I have to walk over it, sometimes dozens of times in a day.  It is and has always been an obstruction sunk into the street, a shallow pit that annoys pedestrians and bicyclists that are crossing the intersection, serves as a permanent pothole that cars fall into all day long, and is tearing up the surrounding pavement.

State Of New York Fiber Optic Cable Junction
State Of New York Fiber Optic Cable Junction

This annoying pit is not your usual sewer hole or electric cable tunnel, manholes for both of those are set in the street and sidewalk a few steps away from this pit and are not noticeable because they are flush with the pavement.  This iron topped hole in the street is a byway for fiber optic cables owned by the State of New York, placed here by an unannounced excavation through my neighborhood back in 1997.  And because no one except the State is allowed to touch it, the pit remains an annoying obstruction full of mystery.

Because the manhole is a carefully maintained depression in the pavement it collects rainwater and snowmelt.  Eventually that water finds an opening in the manhole cover and pours into the tunnel under the street, the water rising down below until the precious valuable fiber optic cables are lovingly bathed in street runoff. Sooner or later the connections on one or more of those cables leaks, the cables stop working properly or at all, and we have a crisis.

The State Of New York Fiber Optic Cable Junction After Rain Or Snow Melt
The State Of New York Fiber Optic Cable Junction After Rain Or Snow Melt

I know when the water is getting into the cables because without warning a crew of contractors working for the State will suddenly show up and block the street for several days.  As far as I can see they never bother to get permission from the City to show up, they don’t put up those temporary No Parking signs for a few days in advance and they only place minimal signage for the cars going by.  That doesn’t particularly bother me, when they show up at 8AM on a weekday and cause delays to the suburbanite commuters that disrespectfully tear through my neighborhood every weekday morning I stand in my doorway and laugh as their cars back up.

This repair visitation happens every few years.  The contractors have to pump out the water from the open pit, pull out the offending connections and usually string new cables up and down the block.  Here they were again this past January, during that intense cold, spending three full days poking around in there.  And of course, they were blocking the intersection during morning rush hour, but unfortunately not the evening rush time because they always pack up and leave by 4PM.

Generally, people don’t work outside in severely cold weather in January unless it is vitally important that the work get done, like a gas line break or a collapsed sewer main.  By the urgency of these repair sessions it is clear that keeping these cables operating is considered very important by someone important.  So what are these cables used for?  Why are these people there in my street causing an obstruction?

The State Of New York Fiber Optic Cable Junction After Rain Or Snow Melt
Contractors Working The Pit, Note Their Cables Spread Across Private Property

Camera in hand I stepped out of my house the second morning the private contractors were out there blocking the intersection to ask a few questions.  It seemed like a good moment because these three guys in hardhats, working for a contracting outfit called Henkels & McCoy, were standing peering down into the open manhole frowning and having a discussion.  When workers show up on my street I almost always go ask them what they are doing, it’s my right to know after all.

As I crossed the street the three looked at me with profound alarm.  I noticed a quick series of glances among them, and two of them stepped back and one fellow readied himself to talk to me.  Apparently he was to be the guy designated to deal with the nosy citizen.

This fellow put on a goofy grin and showed me an Aw Shucks I’m Just A Dumb Cluck Who Don’t Know Nothin’ persona.  He actually pretended that he didn’t know anything about the cables in the hole, that he wasn’t aware they were owned by the State or that they were fiber optic.  Meanwhile the other two guys stood next to each other looking grim while he performed for me.

I didn‘t push it, apparently they were ordered by their superiors to say nothing to us citizens who in a roundabout way are paying their salaries.  But they didn’t try to stop me from peering in the hole or from taking their picture, after all they had no legal right to stop me and it was quite clear that they knew that.  But they didn’t have to talk to me.  And the guy pretending to be goofy scurried out of range of my camera when I pointed it at him.

Inside The Pit After Pumping: Mud, Muck and Oily Water
Inside The Pit After Pumping: Mud, Muck and Oily Water

Actually, if they had talked to me, I could have told them some history of the cables under my street that they likely did not know. I mean, I watched the cables get installed.

Way back in the early 1990s, then NY State governor Mario Cuomo proposed laying what was at the time high tech state-of-the-art fiber optic cable along some 500 miles of Thruway property from NY City to the Pennsylvania border beyond Buffalo.  The reason given was to “make NY State competitive” although it was not clear exactly how a state-owned communication network would do that.  But even though most of us were rather hazy about what this new technology was all about and how it was going to be used, it sounded like a plausible and forward thinking idea.

Unfortunately the State legislature was controlled by the Re-pub Party at the time and those people were conducting a policy of mindless political obstruction of State business complete with government shutdowns, just like they would start doing on the federal level a few years later.  So the idea died until well after after Mario was deposed and replaced by Dirty Joe Bruno’s handpuppet Moonbeam George Pataki.  Under the new Re-pub regime the fiber optic idea was revived, but this time as a so-called “privatized” scheme involving massive payouts to fly-by-night telcos, that is, telecommunication corporations.

A few years later it became obvious that privately owned telcos were not capable of maintaining this new fangled infrastructure on their own initiative, so in 2002 the State took ownership of the cable network away from these financially failing outfits.  After this, information about the cable system becomes murky, little public information is available.  For example, a search for the system yields no basic information, not even a casual mention in the Wikipedia article about the Thruway.  Of course there is no indication why this is.

Contractor Truck Parked On Catherine Street
Contractor Truck Parked On Catherine Street

The most likely explanation for this scrubbing of information from online is “security,” which is more often than not an excuse for hiding the usual thieving of taxpayer money from the public.  There is, however, information out there in the form of announcements of bids for maintenance of the system.  Also there are legal documents pertaining to ownership of the system and disputes with maintenance contractors.

This is kinda hilarious because if this cable system were maintained by State workers instead of being outsourced to contractors then there wouldn’t be these breaches of “security.”  The State has no choice but to make these bid offers public and of course they can’t hide the legal public record, not yet at any rate.  Once again we see that government “security” is merely security theater, little more than a visible pose that does almost nothing to actually make things secure.

The big question is what exactly is this fiber optic network used for?  According to documents some of the cables are leased to private communication operators, which may or may not defray some of the taxpayer costs of having the system, who knows. That information may be buried in Thruway budget documents.  If anyone cares to sift through their budgets and find out please let me know what you find.

See The Black Dot In The Upper Right Corner Of The Puddle? That’s Where The Water Pours Into The Hole
See The Black Dot In The Upper Right Corner Of The Puddle? That’s Where The Water Pours Into The Hole

But one thing we do know for sure is that the State government uses some of these cables as dedicated lines for its own business.  Back in 1997 this was explained to us curious neighbors when State contractors originally dug a trench down my block to lay the cables.  When I joked to the guys in charge of the project that I’d like to run a wire out of my house and hook up to their cable so I could get free fast internet, they took pains to explain to me that would not be possible because of the nature of fiber optic cable.  No sense of humor, but back then they were very forthcoming with information.

This thing in front of my house, of course, is not the main trunk line cable, it is a connector that runs from the State Plaza, connecting with the main line just south of Thruway Exit 23 at mile marker 141.  Out of a mere 15 (known) connectors throughout the entire State there are no less than four connectors at Albany.  Two are at Exit 23, which connect to the downtown State Plaza, and two more at the western end of the City that most likely connect to the State Office Campus out there.

From Occupancy And Work Permit Accommodation Guidelines Fiber Optic Facilities Supplement, January 2016
From Occupancy And Work Permit Accommodation Guidelines Fiber Optic Facilities Supplement, January 2016

The trench they dug through my neighborhood back in 1997 started at the massively ugly marble clad State office building on South Swan, ran down ML King Boulevard in Lincoln Park past my house, and made a sharp right turn at the manhole covered permanent pit.  From there it ran in a shallow trench uphill on one side of Catherine Street.  The dig continued along Oneida Terrace, keeping to higher ground where possible, and from there through the old uncapped landfill that is now Plumeri Park out to Exit 23.

Seeing as this is the South End and that the guys digging the trenches were suburbanites, the contractors did a lousy job of fixing the street after they were done.  The poor quality asphalt they spread over the trench quickly disintegrated and for a couple of years we had to put up with this long narrow mostly unpaved depression on one side of our streets.  Finally the City realized that commuting suburbanites were being inconvenienced by this exposed trench so they grudgingly repaved our streets. Just one more example of how we City taxpayers subsidize the State with our City taxes.

The FBI Fortress On McCarty Avenue In Albany
The FBI Fortress On McCarty Avenue In Albany

But one other thing, this cable runs right past the FBI Fortress on McCarty Avenue.  Perhaps I’m succumbing to a conspiracy theory here, but I would find it hard to believe that the FBI does not have one of these cables for itself so it can watch the State workers.  Every time some poor slob of a State worker gets his face in the newspaper and on TV accused of looking at porn on State time - not even child porn, just plain old everyday porn - I can’t help but think that some sleazy FBI bureaucrat with a permanent sneer on his mug is spending his days rummaging through State computers looking for dirty pictures.  And when that happens I think of this cable in my street.

The streets in my neighborhood were finally fixed with my City taxes, but the manhole with the cables is still a depression in the street.  The City has several times over the years made sure the nearby sewer manhole is flush with the street.  And even the National Grid power monopoly has made sure the electric cable tunnel manhole located at the corner of my property is flush with the sidewalk.

But the high tech state of the art fiber optic network cable manhole cover continues to sink deeper into the street.  The City won’t touch it, and the State does not seem to care that they are carefully maintaining a several inches deep permanent pothole in a very vulnerable spot.  All day long cars and trucks fall into that pit when they make a right turn, surely being hammered with all that weight all day long every day is going to eventually push that pit deeper and finally tear it open.

What State-Owned Fiber Optic Cable Pits Are Supposed To Look Like
What State-Owned Fiber Optic Cable Pits Are
Supposed To Look Like

Okay, so this is the South End of Albany so why should anyone care.  Well, it seems to me that the State Thruway people ought to care for the simple reason that this pit constantly collects water and that every now and then that collected water ruins their expensive and apparently vital cables.  Maybe the State could save itself a lot of trouble and cash by sending a crew out, say, every ten years to rebuild the pit so it is flush with the street and no longer collects water, and not get slammed with car tires?

Maybe the Thruway Authority doesn’t care how much money it wastes and maybe the contractors who repair the cables don’t want to fix a problem that periodically gives them contracts.  But it seems to me that when those cables stop working it must cause a mile of crap for the Thruway managers, what with lease holders screaming at them and the FBI issuing classified official federal complaints.  If it takes three days for the workers on my street to pump out water and string new cables, so then the line could be down for a week, at least.  That must be a lot of screaming.

The Fiber Optic Cable Runs Maybe Two Feet Beneath The Edge Of The Crumbling Pavement On Catherine Street
The Fiber Optic Cable Runs Maybe Two Feet Beneath The Edge Of The Crumbling Pavement On Catherine Street

Years ago, during the reign of former Albany mayor Jerry Jennings, I stood looking around my neighborhood one afternoon and realized every single problem with the neighborhood that I could see could be traced back to government neglect, corruption or deliberate destruction.  The majority could be traced back to the City government, but the rest originated with the County, State or even the federals.  It was a shocking revelation at the time, but it immediately clarified a lot things for me.

Of course the ultimate blame for problems rest with We The People for tolerating bad government.  But what can I do about this permanent carefully maintained pothole that is eating up my State taxes and making it difficult to walk across the street?  I guess I’ll do what I usually do, I’ll continue to live with it and keep on complaining bitterly to anyone who will listen. 


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