Town of Vienna Capital Plan, 9/26/2018

Posted on September 26, 2018

On 9/24/2018, Town council looked at a draft plan for future capital expenditures.  This is the “Town of Vienna CIP Review (Fiscal Years 2019-2034) Presented to Council September 24, 2018″.  I did not attend that meeting, but I can see from the documents that it differs materially from what was in the current budget.  Let me line out the differences that matter vis-a-vis MAC zoning.  The major differences I see are:

  • Funding the placement of Maple Avenue utility lines underground.
  • Dropping funding of the Patrick Henry Library garage (for the time being)
  • Reducing the cost of the new police station from $16M to $14M, and
  • Keeping the meals tax at 3% (instead of raising it to 4%).

First, the Town is starting to plan for putting aside money to place power lines on Maple underground.  Starting in 2024, they will begin setting aside $250,000 per year ($500,000 per biennial bond issue) for that purpose.

In the past, I criticized the Town for undertaking MAC with no plan for how to patch up the sidewalks and power lines once MAC redevelopment has taken place.   The FY 2018 (current) budget allocated $100,000 for a feasibility study for putting the power lines on Maple underground.  And now, with this capital plan,  they propose to put aside a quarter-million-dollars per year for that purpose.

I don’t quite know what to make of that amount of money.  The problem is that the estimated cost of burying city power lines varies widely.  Is that a lot of money, very little money, or something in-between, given the cost of burial.  And can I infer how much of Maple the Town thinks will be left, after MAC is done with it.  (The Town is making all the MAC developers bury the lines in front of their properties.)

In my review of the 8/20/2018 Town Council meeting, I took the 444 Maple West developer’s estimate, which worked out to about $9M per mile, and extrapolated it to all of the MAC Maple Avenue corridor, both sides.  Based on that, it would cost about $30M for doing both sides of the MAC corridor.  At that cost, $0.25M/year would pay for it in … well over a century.

So that doesn’t quite add up.  The developer’s estimate is too high, the amount of line to be buried by the town is too high, or the amount of money is vastly too low.

With a little more thought, I realize that calculation could easily be quite wrong.  I assumed you’d separately bury the lines on each side of the street.  But that could be a ludicrously inefficient way to do it, if you could instead move all the lines to one side, and just bury them on one side.  Seems somewhat crazy to tear up both sides of the street.

That said, the piecemeal approach with MAC appears to lock the Town into burying the lines separately, on both sides of the street.  E.g., when the luxury condos go up at Marco Polo, I believe they are going to bury the lines on the north side of the street.  Whereas Flagship Car Wash/Chick-Fil-A is burying the lines on the south side of the street.

Then, for cost per mile, well, estimates vary.  Here’s one for Palm Beach, Florida that works out to just about $2M per mile.   This fairly recent study in New England (pdf)put the basic cost at $3M per mile, and up.  The “up” covers things like moving existing underground items out of the way, repaving the road, replacing the sidewalks, replacing the trees and other landscaping, and putting up new street lights.  This report from Los Angeles (pdf) also cites figures that work out to $3M per mile (page 3).

But all of those are primarily for simple residential power lines on residential streets, not what we have running down Maple Avenue.  At the other end of the spectrum, here’s one for a high-voltage line in a crowded urban setting that works out to $28M per mile.

This one, on Longboat Key in Florida, is for the main highway through town.  It works out to about $5M per mile, but that’s far less densely populated than Vienna is.

Another odd fact that comes to light is that underground lines don’t last as long as overhead lines.  At least per this article about urban New England.  The estimated service life of underground lines is cited there at just 30 years.

So, that’s great. Not only do you get to pay for putting them underground … do your kids get to pay for replacing them?  Or is that replacement cost, down the road, going to be Virginia Power’s responsibility?  I have no idea, and I’m not sure that I have even seen the eventual replacement cost addressed.

My final comment about putting utilities underground is really one of value.  In essence, you are paying to make a capital improvement in Virginia Power’s property.  So as to make the Town look better.   I would really rather that the Town ask the citizens if they’d rather spend that money on power lines, or on something else.

But this has the look of Something That Has Been Decided, and Is Not to be Questioned.  So, while I don’t recall paying to put these lines underground having been discussed by Town Council, it seems to be in the works.   Maybe I just missed that.

Anyway, my original point here was to guess how much of Maple the Town thinks is actually going to convert to MAC buildings.  Given the wide variance in cost estimates, it’s hard to say.  Let me take a mid-range estimate of $7M per mile, and assume that both sides of the street must be buried separately.   In that case, at $250,000 per year, it would take 94 years to put aside the money to bury all the lines on Maple.  So all I can say is, something about the numbers doesn’t quite jibe.  Or the Town is not expecting to have to bury much line.  And leave it at that.

No money for the Patrick Henry Garage.  The FY 2018 budget had about $6M down for a garage at Patrick Henry Library.  Although the Town is paying for a feasibility study, it appears to have taken the garage construction cost out of the capital plan.   So that appears to be on hold.

The police station build out (renovation) is down to just $14M, from an original $16M estimate.  Still seems like a lot of money, but my best estimate is, this is not out-of-line with averages for this type of building/this size police force.   See my analysis here.

The planned increase in the meals tax (from 3% to 4%) is no longer slated to take place.  Instead, they assume that meals tax revenues will rise by 3.75 percent per year (just slightly higher than the assumption in the FY 2018 budget, and completely reasonable).  And they will dip heavily into reserves.

The upshot is that by jettisoning the Patrick Henry parking garage for the time being, and bringing the police station cost estimate down a bit, they managed to avoid raising the meals tax to 4%.  (N.B., the Town dedicates the meals tax revenue to debt service.)