Post #372: Patrick Henry, power lines, parks, and value.

Posted on September 5, 2019

In my last post, I casually suggested that the Town spend about $1M of your tax dollars to create a third-of-an-acre park as part of the new Patrick Henry library.  And with that proposal, they would create a low-rise, low-key, light-and-airy library structure, instead of squashing the new library beneath a lot-filling parking garage.  But they’d end up with less total parking available.

While it may be fun to spend somebody else’s money, at some point, you have to ask about value.  Is it really worth it to spend that much money, voluntarily, just to have a “prettier” library site that includes a small park?

The answer to that is obviously a matter of opinion.  I.e., there is no one way to answer that question.

But I can make a comparison to another voluntary expenditure that probably is going to be made, solely to “pretty up” that location:  Burying the power lines.  It’s Town policy to get the power lines buried along Maple.  Presumably, that’s going to be part of this redevelopment.

In this brief post, I’m just going to point out that burying the power lines, at both edges of the Patrick Henry site, will almost certainly cost more than my $1M “Library Park” proposal.  Best guess, it will cost in excess of $1.2M, possibly substantially in excess of that.

So one way to look at the value question is by comparison to that.  If you only had $1M to spend, and could either bury the power lines or buy the “Library Park” proposal, which would you rather do?

Detail follows.

As part of its legally-required Comprehensive Plan, the Town of Vienna adopted a goal of burying utilities for all new construction.  In particular, it has a goal of burying the power lines on Maple.  As I have pointed out several times, apparently the Town did this without considering cost, and only just this year did it finally getting around to funding a feasibility study to see just how much that would cost (as detailed in this post about the Town’s capital plan).

I have addressed the cost of burying the power lines in several posts, most recently Post #210.  Based on a handful of real-world examples, it looks like burying the power lines along Maple should run about $10M/mile.  (That’s just slightly more than the $9M/mile (equivalent) that the 444 Maple West developer cited as the cost.)  And, separately, that burying the power transmission lines that cross Maple is a substantially more expensive undertaking (as, so far, every MAC developer as balked at doing that.)

So, how much of our tax money is going to be spent burying the power lines at the new Patrick Henry library?

The $10M/mile works out to about $2000 per linear foot along Maple.  The Patrick Henry library lot has about 330 feet of Maple Avenue frontage.  Doing the math, that works out to be ($2000 x 330 =) $660,000.  For just the Maple Avenue lines.

But in addition, that lot has about another 250 feet of transmission lines running down Center street, alongside the library lot, and across Maple.  Ever MAC developer in this situation, so far, has been pressured to bury those lines as well. So the Town itself certainly can’t leave those ugly power lines up, ruining the new Maple streetscape.  Those cross-Maple power transmission lines would have to come down as well, at a cost that is likely well in excess of $2000 per linear foot.  Burying those Center Street power lines would therefore cost more than ($2000 x 250) = $500,000.

Bottom line?  In round numbers, $1.2M.  Maybe more, depending on how expensive it is to bury the cross-Maple transmission lines.  That is, if the Town follows the same guidance it has tried to force on MAC developers, the taxpayers are on the hook for at least $1.2M, to make that site prettier by burying the power lines.

I think that helps put the “Library Park” proposal in perspective.  If that’s the kind of beautification expense that the Town incurs as a matter of policy, then, in my opinion, spending $1M to have a nice library and a small park at the center of Vienna, instead of a library sitting under a bulky parking garage — well, that seems like a pretty good bargain.