Officials with Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s administration are increasingly frustrated by the proliferation of obsolete utility poles—often left partially standing, abandoned, and adjacent to the new poles that replace them—creating a potential hazard and adding to visual litter in a city struggling to tackle blight and trash.
The problem is particularly bad in underserved neighborhoods, says Darryl Gissel, Broome’s chief administrative officer, who has begun documenting abandoned, partially sawed-off poles along Plank Road and Florida Boulevard.
“It happens all over and if it’s in a neighborhood where there is not a civic association or a homeowners group, there’s no one to make us aware that it’s a problem and to advocate for taking it down,” he says. “They distort the landscape and they can really be a problem.”
Public Service Commissioner Craig Greene’s office also is concerned by the problem and has gotten involved. Greene’s chief of staff, David Zito, says the commissioner opened an investigation into the issue in late 2019, after two utility poles collapsed on Perkins Road when a car ran into them, knocking out power for hours in the middle of the day.
“We were all getting calls because businesses were all without power and it’s not like it was a hurricane,” Zito says. “That is when Commissioner Greene started asking questions and looking into the problem and once you start looking at the poles you can’t stop.”
Zito says after driving around Baton Rouge and doing some cursory research, Greene realized there is a “huge issue” so he opened a PSC investigation that recently concluded.
Specific details of the probe are confidential, which Zito says is not unusual. He says the PSC conducts investigations in private so utilities will feel comfortable responding candidly to questions.
But he says the findings of the investigation, which the PSC will be discussing publicly in the months to come as it begins a new rule-making phase of addressing the problem, center on three contributing factors: weather conditions, infrastructure and communication.
Of those, communication—or, rather, a lack thereof—between the electric companies that erect the poles, and the phone and cable companies that also use them, is the biggest problem, Zito says.
When an electric company needs to replace an aging pole, it replaces the structure and then moves the wires over from the old pole to the newer one, usually cutting off the part of the pole it no longer needs, Zito says.
But it leaves the owner half of the pole that still has phone and cable wires attached. In theory, it’s supposed to then notify the communications companies to move their wires, but Gissel and Zito say that doesn’t happen as it should.
“We know Entergy has to get the other utilities to respond before they can remove an obsolete pole and that seems to be the issue,” Gissel says. “The communications companies just don’t respond quickly enough and if they don’t respond then Entergy cannot remove the poles.”
Entergy spokesperson Brandon Scardigli says Entergy, for one, uses an electronic process, the National Joint Utilities Notification System, which notifies telecommunications companies when there is an action needed.
He says there shouldn’t be much of a delay because the process is electronic, though he notes that there is “no set timeline for the cable or telephone entity to complete their needed work,” and that each pole and location is unique so the amount of time can vary widely.
Zito says the PSC’s investigation suggests there’s lots of ways to improve the process.
“We think there is a lot of opportunity to improve things on the communication end,” he says. “That will help the blight at the same time.”
Zito says the PSC will begin discussing drafting new, tougher rules around the issue at its monthly meetings.