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Group lobbies for line mapping repository

Sean Ryan
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Wisconsin has the technology to map the location of underground pipes and wires and save the information for future generations, but cost and security concerns are hampering builders’ efforts to do so.

The Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association Inc. will renew its push to create a statewide repository for construction plans showing the location of underground sewer and water laterals, power lines and gas mains in new projects, said Executive Director Richard Wanta.

“It costs a lot of money to do things, but you have to look at personal safety and the safety of your work force,” he said. “We don’t need any more churches blown up. We don’t need any more houses blown up. We don’t need anything blown up if we can do something to prevent that just because somebody needs to preserve some records.”

Under the current system, engineers, contractors, and municipal water and sewer utilities throw out the plans after new projects are complete, Wanta said. That means builders 10 years from now, like contractors today, won’t know where to find underground pipes, he said.

But a state mandate to send plans to a repository would mean utilities and locators could trace pipes within a few feet, which is enough to ensure contractors operate safely, Wanta said.

There was a lot of discussion about creating a statewide repository 10 years ago, but the conversation died after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raised efforts to conceal the locations of underground gas and power lines, said Don Coe, supervisor of facility location for We Energies.

“It’s something I think we always should be open to discussing,” he said.

Wanta said a government-run system could protect utilities’ plans.

Today’s digital technology would save the expense of keeping paper plans and let the repository use Global Positioning System technology to create digital maps of underground utility lines, Wanta said.

“The people that succeed us, they’re going to wonder that, with all the technology we have that we couldn’t find the way to protect this information,” Wanta said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation in July 2008 powered up a new mapping system using GPS that could trace underground utility locations and depths, said Program Manager Paul Hartzheim. When installing new pipes, contractors could use GPS locators to identify the longitude, latitude and depth of existing pipes.

They could beam information to central WisDOT computers to create 3-D maps of new utilities, he said. However, to increase the accuracy of the maps — making them accurate within an inch rather than a foot — the state would have to pay more, Hartzheim said.

“It’s now at the point where you are not controlled by the equipment,” he said. “You are controlled by, ‘Do you want to spend the money? To what degree (of accuracy) do you want?’”

The system, called the Wisconsin Continuously Operating Reference Stations, is used primarily for surveying on highway projects, Hartzheim said.

The technology is still too new to be used on all projects, Coe said. The GPS units alone cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

“It becomes a matter of manpower and available dollars to do that,” he said.

Despite the limitations, Coe said, GPS probably will change the way utilities are mapped within 10 years.

“I don’t want you to think for a second that we’re not excited as hell about this technology — we are,” he said. “In the future, this is a technology that can make a huge difference.”

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