Post #210: The cost of putting utilities underground

Posted on March 26, 2019

This page gives a brief discussion of the cost of burying the power and phone lines along Maple Avenue.  Best guess, this is going to cost $25M, or roughly the same as the cost of the new community center and the new police station, combined.   It is not clear, yet, what portion of that we are going to pay for.

Every MAC project — and anyone who needs some zoning exception to build on Maple — is being forced to pay for putting their little piece of the overhead utility wires underground.

But what about the parts that are left over — who is going to pay for putting the rest of the utility lines underground?

We are.  With its last capital plan, the Town finally started to figure out what liabilities it has incurred in committing to putting the Maple Avenue utility lines underground.   You can see my September 2018 discussion here, but it amounts to squirreling away a quarter-million dollars a year, and paying $100K for a feasibility study for putting those lines underground.

On the one hand, better late than never.  Glad to see that feasibility study.  But, given that they passed MAC zoning almost five years ago, studying that now is definitely kind of late.

The entire length of the Maple Avenue corridor is a little over 1.5 miles.  But one stretch of it only has utility wires, directly on Maple, on one side of the road.  Conservatively, there’s therefore about 2.5 miles of Maple Avenue utility lines to be buried.

From time to time, I have tried to get a handle on what that’s likely to cost.  The Town has committed to burying lines on both sides of the street.  I’ve tried to estimate what that would cost, if it were done all at once.  That is, the total cost of burying 2.5 miles of utility lines, along Maple, in Vienna.

Cost estimates for burying utility lines vary widely, depending on exactly what you are burying, and on the circumstances.

This proposal along Route 1 gives a benchmark within Fairfax County.  There, burying utility lines on both sides of Route 1, for about 3 miles (so six miles of buried lines, total) is estimated to cost $60M.  Or, roughly $10M/mile, in that wide-open and uncrowded stretch of Route 1.  By eye, the utility lines along Route 1 appear to be about of the same scale as those along Maple.

Similarly, putting the utility lines underground on a 0.6 mile stretch of Route 1 in Prince William county cost $12M, or, again, about $10M per linear mile of utility underground (assuming both sides of the road had lines).

This is reasonably consistent with the estimate given by the developer of 444 Maple West, which worked out to be about $9M/mile.  (But, in all likelihood, they would have had the earth moving equipment there, so there would have been some economies there.  Also, there are appear to be no phone lines, only power lines at that location).

This is also in the ballpark of estimates that I obtained for utility projects around the country.  Although costs will vary depending on circumstances.

So, best guess, the Town’s commitment to burying the utilities on Maple is a roughly $25M cost.  Some of that will be borne by developers — presumably in lieu of other concessions that Town might have gotten.  And the rest will be borne, most likely, by us.

Just to put that in perspective, that’s just about the cost of the new Community Center and the new Police Station, combined.  Another way to put that in perspective is that it works out to about $4500 per Vienna household.

Another way to put that in perspective is to realize that if the Town earmarks a quarter-million dollars a year for this, it will only take ($25,000,000/$250,000 = ) 100 years to save up for it.

As an economist, it’s one of those things that makes me wonder what people’s preferences really are.  If we could vote on it, would the average Vienna household rather have a less-cluttered Maple Avenue cityscape, or a check for $4500?