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City to SHA: Undergrounding Utilities Should Not Delay Route 1 Funding

Power lines on Route 1

In a recent Council worksession, Mayor Fellows stated that there have been efforts to divert funding for Route 1 redevelopment to somewhere else. Someone in the General Assembly commented in a hearing that they believed the City wished to tie reconstruction of Route 1 to undergrounding of utilities, which could be prohibitively expensive.

In last week’s meeting, the Council decided to send a letter to State Highway Administration (SHA) encouraging them to continue progress on Route 1 design. The letter also advises SHA that the question of undergrounding utilities should not delay funding for U.S. Route 1.

Here is the complete text of that letter:

The City of College Park’s support for the reconstruction of Route 1, including the undergrounding of utilities, is long standing and well documented. At the request of both the city and the University of Maryland, the SHA hired consultants during the planning phase of the project to provide cost estimates for placing all of the utilities found along the corridor underground. In 2000, this cost for the entire corridor from College Avenue to the Beltway was estimated to be $25,726,950 while the cost of relocating overhead utilities to new overhead utilities was estimated at $14,000,000.

The SHA advised that cost sharing would be necessary in order to pay the difference between utility relocation and utility undergrounding and that the SHA would work with the city and others to identify funding models to accomplish this. The city agreed with this approach and retained its own consultants to examine tax increment financing (TIF) and special assessments as possible financing mechanisms to help fund the undergrounding of utilities. Consultant recommendations presented to the City Council included designating a Route 1 TIF district in the lower midtown section of the corridor currently undergoing redevelopment and utilizing both city and county incremental tax proceeds. A TIF district has not yet been created for this purpose based, in part, on the lack of accurate information regarding cost estimates and construction schedules.

The Central US 1 Corridor Sector Plan and SMA approved in 2010 for the revitalization and redevelopment of the corridor recommends a comprehensive utilities undergrounding program and requires developers to assess the feasibility of placing utilities underground in a redevelopment project. Undergrounding utilities is usually not possible on a site-by site basis making a comprehensive undergrounding plan even more important. Development conditions have been placed on several previously approved projects that require the applicant to pay their fair share of the costs of undergrounding utilities (typically not to exceed $200,000) at such time that a comprehensive process is established. Most of these conditions will expire if a process is not established by 2020. Other applicants have been required to pay a lump sum to the city toward the future undergrounding of utilities. The city currently has $10,000 on hand for this use which would be returned to the applicants if undergrounding does not occur.

When the engineering phase of this project was initiated, Mr. John Jenkins, Project Manager, contacted city and university staff for a meeting in May 2012. The city and university made it very clear at this meeting that the undergrounding of utilities was a priority that needed to be addressed from the beginning of the design process. Cost sharing for construction, not design, was again discussed and it was acknowledged by Mr. Jenkins that the recent development of high rises on Route 1 might preclude the relocation of utilities to another above-ground location within the SHA right-of-way making undergrounding a necessity. Mr. Jenkins provided a utility relocation flow chart that described a very deliberate SHA decision making process involving all stakeholders in assessing the options for the relocation of utilities (see attached).

Based on this information, the city understood that the issue of whether or not to underground utilities would be decided during the design process with the full participation of the city and other stakeholders. To date, the city has not been presented with any specific design information about the Route 1 plans or with any specific utility information or cost estimates. Mr. Jenkins provided a briefing on the status of the engineering project at a City Council meeting on January 2, 2013, and in response to a specific question about the undergrounding of utilities, advised that further discussion would be needed this summer after additional utility location information was obtained by SHA. In an email following this meeting from Mr. Jenkins to Terry Schum, the city’s Planning Director, Mr. Jenkins stated that he had asked for a determination of whether or not utility companies had prior rights on Route 1 and made a request for a survey crew to go out to determine the location of all existing underground utilities that should be completed by March
The city respectfully requests that a meeting be held as soon as possible with all appropriate SHA staff and project stakeholders in order to clarify the next steps and timeframes in regard to the design and funding for the Route 1 project. We are interested in reviewing any specific design plans and utility information that may be available at this time. The undergrounding of utilities remains a priority for the city and we are willing to further the discussions regarding the financing mechanisms that have already been investigated.

It is not our intent to hold up the design process in any way, or to impede full funding of the project. It is our goal to be a full participant in the process and to obtain the best possible outcome for the city, county and the state. We look forward to hearing from you.

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