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A mess of wires all over Baltimore. What to do about them? | COMMENTARY

Today I return to a subject I first raised in this space four years ago — the ridiculous amount of wire, live and dormant, hanging over Baltimore backyards and alleys. Old phone wires and multiple layers of cable wires, behind rowhouses and not always visible from the street — eyesores mostly out of eyesight — loom as ugly and depressing symbols of neglect and corporate indifference to homeowners and renters.

The wires have been there for years, and no one seems to know what to do about them. Some people have tried to get the companies that installed them to remove them, without success.

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I first looked into this in 2016 after walking down an alley. I was shocked at how much wire was overhead, some of it balled up and no longer in use, and some of it hanging low enough to catch me at the chin. Apparently, when a new homeowner or renter orders service, the service company runs new lines and leaves the old. Plus, telephone lines from the days of landlines — remember those? — have apparently been left in place for years.

In 2016, I contacted Juan Alvarado, who, as director of the Telecommunications, Gas and Water Division of the Maryland Public Service Commission, was very familiar with the issue.

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“It’s a complex question,” he said. For one thing, federal law covers utility poles and forms the baseline regulation for what attaches to them. At the state level, Alvarado said, the main concern with utility lines is whether they pose a hazard to public safety. Otherwise, he said, the PSC did not have authority.

Alvarez noted that Comcast can run a new line to a house, but a Comcast installer can’t remove a Verizon line. “They can’t cut a line that doesn’t belong to them,” said Alvarado, who left the PSC in July.

Nothing about this has changed since then, says Tori Leonard, communications director for the commission. “The jurisdiction of this issue has not changed,” she wrote in an email on Thursday.

But, come on, somebody somewhere must have an answer to this problem. This is a form of industrial waste and visual pollution; you’d think the Baltimore City Council or General Assembly could force by ordinance or law the companies that install these wires to retire them when they are no longer needed.

I recently posted notes about this on Facebook and Twitter and the response has been vigorous. I have emails and photographs of over-wired alleys and backyards from all across the city, from Druid Heights to Hoes Heights, from Irvington to Remington, from Highlandtown to Pigtown, from Bolton Hill to Federal Hill, from McElderry Park to Patterson Park, from Hampden to places that do not rhyme with Hampden — Hollins Market, Oliver, Upper Fells Point, Medfield and Riverside.

“The alley behind my house is a wired mess,” wrote Dave Coyle from Charles Village. “I’ve always felt the wires symbolize deterioration and neglect. Would love to see them removed.”

“There really ought to be a regulation that Comcast removes all the stupid wires they hang,” said Jenny Townsend, who lives north of Patterson Park.

“I live on the alley and there are so many wires and they keep adding to it,” Tessa Butwin wrote from South Duncan Street in Butchers Hill. “I asked the [Comcast] guy who was adding another one for a neighbor if they would remove some and he laughed and said I could call but they won’t.”

“We have a couple of rat nests of wires near us and no one will take responsibility,” Chris Ryder wrote from Bolton Hill. “The issue seems to be subcontractors or over-pressured employees whose job it is to get the new connection made as fast and as cheaply as possible, and they don’t care about what came before.”

“I am a homeowner in Reservoir Hill and have been appalled by the carelessness of these companies to maintain their infrastructure,” wrote Miguel Melendez. “Jumbles of wires leading to nowhere, many of which left dangling low to the ground.”

Antonio Hayes, the state senator who represents the 40th legislative district, said he has been working with city agencies, Verizon, AT&T, BGE and Comcast to clear wires in the alley behind the 1600 block of West North Avenue, an area where people sell and use drugs. Hayes said “wires entangled with vegetation” halted a recent effort to clean up the alley.

Liz Bement wrote from Upper Fells Point to report that “tangles and wires have grown exponentially over the years.” She said members of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association have tried to tackle this problem. “BGE would come out, only to blame the problem on Comcast,” she said, “and Comcast would in turn blame the problem on BG&E.”

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A Verizon spokesman says Baltimoreans concerned about wires should call 800-Verizon.

On Twitter, @ComcastCares was more willing, even eager, to hear from property owners: “If they want to reach out to us here, that is an awesome option. We have our awesome team 24/7 to assist. We also have our toll free number, 1-800-Comcast, or on our website we have a chat option.”

Awesome.

Look, this isn’t the most urgent issue in the city — not with the coronavirus pandemic, not with the continuing violent crime — but the longer this goes on, the longer it will take to untangle the mess.

Homeowners must unite to end this madness.

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