Who’s in charge of street poles?

The two utilities that jointly own the wooden street poles from which aerial wire systems loop through just about every street in Boston are Verizon and NStar— the telephone and electric company, respectively.

NStar spokesman Mike Durand told the Reporter that the two companies split up maintenance calls across the city for logistical reasons. Dorchester and Mattapan poles, for instance, are supposed to be serviced by Verizon. So, when complaints came into NStar about a teetering pole on Erie Street earlier this year, NStar officials passed the news along to their counterparts at Verizon.

Those complaints either fell on deaf ears or were not handled in quick-enough fashion, for on the night of June 22, the pole toppled onto a passing car carrying five people, including two small children, that shortly afterwards burst into flames.

Fortunately, there were but minor injuries at the scene, but the accident plunged about 4,700 utility customers into darkness, at least for the minutes it took for NStar managers to restore service to most of them. About 250 homes and businesses were without power through the night, as NStar work crews were dispatched to make emergency repairs on Eire Street.

Durand says that the utility company would normally leave repairs like that to Verizon, but, he said, “We responded, and in the interest of public safety and getting the system back up, we set those poles.” Power was fully restored around 3:30 a.m., he said.

Durand said that NStar has fired off a letter to Verizon calling attention to the incident and reminding them “that it’s their service area.” Added Durand, “To my knowledge, it’s extremely rare for this to happen. We have a program – and I’m sure Verizon does as well – to inspect and repair and replace poles. This is a rare occurrence.”

Durand said that NStar and Verizon have had a long-standing agreement to split the city between them on maintenance of the poles that carry their wires. NStar has jurisdiction over Brighton, East Boston, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, South End, and West Roxbury. Verizon covers Charlestown, Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and South Boston.

Darryl Smith, who ran to the scene of the accident on June 22, said that both companies need to communicate better and step up their efforts to maintain poles that are a clear and present danger.

“When the community is lodging complaints into NStar – and they know it’s not their issue – that info should be passed on to the community so they can then lodge the complaint to the right place. This just wasn’t handled properly. What happened was almost tragic. There’s no way people should be riding down the street and poles are falling on them and their kids.”