Sarah Magruder Lyle: Florida’s infrastructure is breaking new ground, with hidden risk
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Warning flags on green grass of a residential lawn.
It’s vital that underground utilities are located accurately and timely.

It’s no secret that Florida’s economy is booming, with its low unemployment, favorable tax structure and pro-business environment.

Florida’s infrastructure is growing alongside that economic expansion, ranking in surveys as the best state for construction and estimated to see $87 billion in new construction revenue in 2023. $19 billion for new infrastructure is making its way into Florida through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as $16 billion in other federal funds for water, sewer and broadband infrastructure improvements.

Before that infrastructure becomes a reality, the groundbreaking must take place — and not just the ceremonial ribbon-cutting type, but the digging that must happen to install this critical infrastructure for projects large and small.

As excavation activity increases across the U.S., it’s never been more important for stakeholders to understand how and why buried facilities are damaged.

66 times each day in Florida, an underground utility line is damaged by failure to follow the safe digging process. 24,000 times per year, excavation activity damages buried power, water, gas, internet and other utility lines across the state.

That’s 66 daily opportunities for injuries and loss of life and for Florida homes and businesses to lose power, communications, and other utility services.

In Florida, utilities are increasingly moving underground. Beyond tens of thousands of miles of underground electricity distribution lines, Florida relies on 50,000 miles of natural gas and oil pipelines.

The state’s four largest counties operate more than 18,000 miles of water pipes, and the largest internet providers together operate over 30,000 route miles of fiber optic cable across Florida.

All of these critical assets are at risk from excavation activity. It’s a $30 billion problem nationwide. And with U.S. construction spending up nearly 6% this year to $1.8 trillion, the potential for damage to utilities will keep growing — unless decisive action is taken to prevent it.

The reality is, 76% of all damage comes from just three common mistakes: failing to contact 811 before digging; failing to accurately mark underground utilities or mark them on time; and failing to maintain adequate clearance from underground lines when digging or confirm the location of utilities by test holing. Yet despite knowing this, the annual rate of damage to buried infrastructure has remained stagnant for much of the last decade — and has even increased slightly since 2019.

Reversing this trend requires that all stakeholders are accountable to each other, and that everyone does their part. That’s the mission of Common Ground Alliance, the only national nonprofit association dedicated to saving lives and preventing damage to North American underground infrastructure, as well as those who dig and their communities.

Our more than 2,700 member organizations represent every facet of the underground utility industry — electric and gas utilities, builders and contractors, 811 centers and damage prevention technology companies, insurers and others. These partners work diligently to make communities safer. But with growth in infrastructure surging, the status quo isn’t sustainable.

That’s why recently, Common Ground Alliance announced our most ambitious goal ever — reducing damages to critical underground utilities by 50% in five years. This “50 in 5” challenge aims to address this problem head-on by encouraging several clear, data-driven practices, which in Florida includes contacting Sunshine 811 before every dig, every time.

Despite very high awareness of 811, 60% of damages to underground utilities is caused specifically by professional contractors not contacting 811 before digging (according to our Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report). And 40% of homeowners who plan to take on a home improvement project this year won’t use the free 811 service beforehand.

In Florida, contacting Sunshine 811 before every dig — no matter how seemingly minor — can prevent damage to utility lines sometimes located just a few inches underground.

For professional contractors, it’s crucial to maintain safe excavation practices, like test holing to confirm the location of buried utilities and maintaining the legally required clearance around those utilities. It’s also vital that underground utilities are located accurately and timely.

With massive state and federal investments in infrastructure and the pace of construction activity in Florida — along with many states across the nation — we’re at a major inflection point on how to prevent damages to buried utilities, and protecting the lives of those who live and work near them. These fundamental challenges will be front and center during National Safe Digging Month in April and will also be the focus of the 2023 Common Ground Alliance Conference & Expo, which takes place April 17-21 in Orlando — the largest event of its kind in America with more than 1,000 industry stakeholders attending.

Our communities depend on the building and improvement of our infrastructure — it’s essential to our progress. By ensuring that contractors and homeowners follow the key steps in the 811 process, we can rise to the challenge of preventing damage to the utilities upon which we rely, ensuring that infrastructure remains the heart of Florida’s economic engine for decades to come.


Sarah K. Magruder Lyle is president and CEO of Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the national nonprofit trade association dedicated to protecting underground utility lines, people who dig near them and their communities. CGA is the preeminent source of damage prevention data and insights through its DIRT program and Damage Prevention Institute.

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