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Markings create a life-size city map

Far from grafitti, these streaks of spray paint are required by law
by: L.E. BASKOW, Construction near Southwest Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street prompted these utility markings on the street and sidewalk. Red means electricity; orange identifies communications.

The streets of downtown Portland are a riot of color at the moment.

With the bus mall being torn up and a steady stream of new developments going up, multicolored markings are popping up at many crossroads.

On the asphalt and on the curb there are arrows, lines, acronyms and partial words. They form a cryptic language that appears almost overnight and can stick around for months, despite the rain and foot traffic.

One of the most common words gives a clue: 'LOC,' short for locate. These markings are called locates, in that they tell you what's under the street. They are color-coded:

Blue is for water main.

Green is for sewer and storm.

Red is for electricity.

Yellow is for natural gas.

Orange is for communications.

Other signs include 'P' for power, 'QLN' for Qwest Local Network and 'SL' for streetlight.

Whenever someone such as a developer or a homeowner wants to excavate, they are required by law to give the utility companies two business days to mark where their ducts and pipes are with spray paint.

This is so the digging doesn't damage any ducts, pipes or cables, which can be anywhere from 2 to 24 feet bellow the surface. Locators use utility company maps and radio technology to locate everything that could possibly be harmed. Those doing the digging then have 12 days to get started.

The water company uses its own people to do 'locates,' but most utilities farm the work out to agencies such as Locating Inc. Dave Steinert started marking streets for the Portland company in 1991 and now manages its Oregon operations.

Strolling around Old Town, he can read the city like a book. Steinert points out the letters 'MCI' and traces a fiber optic down the street between several manholes. At the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Naito Parkway he notes a 60-inch-diameter sewer main and, a few yards along, a 20-inch high-pressure gas pipe marked by the words 'call before you dig.'

'The gas company will send someone to stand there and watch while you dig,' Steinert says. 'It could blow a hole in the street if you hit it.'

Indeed, this summer Amtrak's Union Station was evacuated for an evening after an excavator cut through a gas main with a diamond saw.

Such events are uncommon but legendary. Steinert tells of a Milwaukie homeowner who took a chain saw to a buried piece of wood, only to find he had cut through an old power duct and cut off communications for the town, including 911 service.

'We're here to educate the public about what they can do, but it still happens that people start digging without calling in. Some excavators won't call for a locate, they do, 'I know it's there, I can feel it,' ' Steinert says.

He says some excavators are so good with a backhoe bucket that they can tell by the soil when they are likely to hit something. 'But a lot of people just don't think about there being something under the ground,' he says.

For information, see www.digsafelyoregon.com.

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