Placing utility lines underground in Vienna’s Maple Avenue corridor would beautify the streetscape and improve service reliability, but at a steep cost.
According to a feasibility study by Rinker Design Associates P.C., presented at the Vienna Town Council’s March 8 work session, utility undergrounding in 10 locations would cost an estimated $22 million – the equivalent of about half of the town’s general-fund budget for one year.
“We discovered that it’s much more complicated than we’d thought or anticipated,” said Vienna Public Works Director Michael Gallagher. In some cases, one pole placed underground might require the installation of two new poles, he added.
Possible projects along Maple Avenue, in suggested order of execution, include the Nutley Street intersection ($2.1 million), Nutley Street to Lewis Street ($2.2 million), Lewis Street to Pleasant Street ($2.9 million), Pleasant Street to Courthouse Road ($2.1 million), Courthouse Road to Center Street ($2.3 million), Center Street to Mill Street ($1 million), Mill Street to Park Street ($1.9 million), Park Street to Glyndon Street ($1.3 million), Glyndon Street to Beulah Road ($2.8 million) and Beulah Road to Mashie Drive ($3.4 million).
The consulting firm selected the projects, which are independent from each other, based upon the sections’ ease of location for installing transitional poles and the amount of surface-mounted equipment that would be needed.
“When you go underground, you need to find above-ground spaces for those transformers and switches,” said Sharon Dusza, a senior project manager with Rinker Design Associates.
The roadway corridor is the most logical place to place utilities underground, Dusza said. The firm also examined sidewalk and private-property options, but found the former had space limitations and the latter would have prohibitive costs and time investments to obtain necessary easement for duct installations.
Some of the suggested Maple Avenue sites, such as the stretch between Lawyers Road and Center Street with many buildings close to the roadway, have little space available, Dusza said.
Various utilities have differing requirements. Dominion Energy requires concrete-encased duct banks with manholes and pad-mounted transformers and switches. Verizon also stipulates concrete-encased duct banks with manholes, but requires pedestals and hand holes. Cox needs duct banks with manholes and hand holes.
Some Council members inquired about the likelihood of future equipment miniaturization and the possibility of consolidating utilities within ducts. Communications providers such as Verizon and Cox might share space with each other, but not with Dominion Energy, Dusza said.
Some companies, such as Verizon, have switched from copper lines to fiber optics, Dusza said. The latter are smaller, lighter, more durable and lose far less signal over long distances, according to Atlantech.net.
The town could pay for the projects with bonds, revenues from meals taxes and special revitalization districts, and possibly loans or grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and Main Street America, according to the study. The initiatives also might be combined with larger projects undertaken by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and Federal Highway Administration, the document read.
Major storms, such as the 2012 derecho that devastated trees and power lines in the region, highlight the value and necessity of utility undergrounding, said Vienna Town Manager Mercury Payton.
Enthusiasm for utility undergrounding varied widely on the Council. Council member Charles Anderson said the town should take a “very opportunistic” approach and collect funds from builders as areas redevelop, so that one developer does not foot the cost for utilities that would serve others.
Council member Howard Springsteen said there likely would be little public support for a special utility tax for undergrounding. He also was dubious the town would be able to come up with the necessary funds.
“We don’t have the bandwidth or ability to put $22 million worth of wires underground,” he said.
Mayor Linda Colbert said not placing lines underground also carries costs, such as lost commercial revenues during power outages.
“When you’re a business owner, it’s a whole day’s worth of money you could have earned,” she said.