Mount Vernon District Supervisor urges immediate action on Route 1 utility undergrounding
Ten years ago — on July 19, 2012 — members of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) met with representatives of utility companies to discuss the aftermath of the derecho that hit the region on June 29 of that year.
The storm, which came with little warning and had 80 mile-per-hour winds, caused widespread electrical outages, knocked out landline and cell service in many areas, and disrupted 911 service. In some regions, gas stations lost electricity, rendering pumps inoperable. Some electronic banking systems also went down.
In total, 63% of Dominion Virginia Power [now Dominion Energy Virginia] customers in Northern Virginia lost power from the storm, and service wasn’t fully restored for a week. In fact, more Virginia residents lost power during the derecho than they did the previous year during Hurricane Irene.
Utility representatives faced tough questions at the NVRC meeting. Verizon was grilled about multiple system and communication failures. Dominion was asked by then-Commissioner Jay Fisette of Arlington County whether there was a qualitative difference between areas with underground versus above-ground lines. Reports from various parts of the D.C. metro region later showed that areas with underground utilities had fared better during the storm.
Rodney Blevins, Dominion’s then-vice president for distribution operations, told Fisette the utility had a responsibility to take a second look at undergrounding — that there might be equipment that was more susceptible to storm damage and therefore might best be moved underground. He promised to provide cost-related information to Fisette. Meanwhile, then-Lee District Supervisor and Commissioner Jeff McKay said if he knew the locations, the county might be able to partner with Dominion on undergrounding utilities via redevelopment opportunities.
Fast forward one decade: while Dominion has an active Strategic Undergrounding Program in place, and some parts of Northern Virginia — such as Prince William County — have made marked progress on undergrounding utilities, others have remained mired in discussions on how to pay for it.
Fisette, now a managing principal with DMV Strategic Advisors, said that Arlington County ultimately chose to designate and pay capital funds to underground utilities in a very few, revitalized commercial corridors such as Columbia Pike.
“Even in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, we set expectations for each new development to include the undergrounding instead of having [the county] pay for it,” he said.
Fisette has adopted a “rather pragmatic position” on undergrounding over the years. While he generally doesn’t think it’s good value for taxpayer funds to be spent to underground all utilities in a corridor, he said “there may be situations where public excavation is being done for transportation infrastructure where the undergrounding is worthwhile to take advantage of the excavation.”
That’s exactly what Fairfax County’s Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck is banking on for the Richmond Highway corridor in Fairfax County. Over the past six or seven years, Storck has been dealing with the complexities of the issue and meeting with stakeholders in hopes of finding a viable solution for getting utilities undergrounded as part of the impending Richmond Highway widening from Jeff Todd Way to Sherwood Hall Lane — and ultimately along the rest of the seven-mile corridor as it’s widened for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. The current design plans for both projects, however, still envision above-ground utilities.
“I hope we can fund [undergrounding] the whole thing because I’m convinced that this is ultimately a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would cost more later,” said Storck.
Over the past several years, Virginia State Senator Scott Surovell, a Mount Vernon area resident who represents the 36th district, has attempted to help provide a funding mechanism for undergrounding via various pieces of legislation. In 2018, he sponsored legislation to give Fairfax and Prince William Counties additional funding streams to underground utilities along Route 1, enabling them to use transportation dollars if they matched it with local dollars.
“While the Prince William County Board of Supervisors has used local dollars to fund undergrounded utilities on their 14-mile stretch of U.S. 1,” wrote Surovell in a March 2018 commentary, “the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors opposes using any local dollars for undergrounding.” He noted that a powerful windstorm that month — ranked among the fifth worst power outages in Dominion’s company history at the time — might “help change their position.”
The following year, Surovell sponsored legislation creating a pilot program for undergrounding electric distribution lines along the Richmond Highway corridor. Additionally, he and Delegate Paul Krizek, a fellow Mount Vernon area resident representing Virginia’s 44th district, secured a $15 million contribution from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and a commitment from Verizon to cover their own undergrounding costs of around $45 million if Fairfax County agreed to spend an additional $10 million to construct the underground duct bank large enough to include Verizon’s lines.
When implementation challenges and continued grappling over the upfront undergrounding costs prevented the county from employing the pilot program, Surovell worked with county officials to address their concerns. His updated legislation from 2021 extended the pilot program, expanded the type of utilities that could be undergrounded — including as part of transportation projects in other parts of the county — and put restrictions on levies that could be imposed on residential and nonresidential electric utility customers to fund the program. The legislation caps the levy on residential customers throughout Fairfax County at $1 per month and the levy on nonresidential customers at no more than 6.67% of the monthly amount charged.
Thanks to the House Counties Cities and Towns committee for approving my bill to help underground utilities on U.S. 1 in Fairfax County! pic.twitter.com/sPeQYzc1AY
— Senator Scott Surovell (@ssurovell) February 19, 2021
Surovell’s latest legislation “gave us more options,” said Storck, who has incorporated it into his “Undergrounding Utilities Plan for Fairfax County” that he’s been sharing with key stakeholders over the past several months.
Both the business and residential communities around the Richmond Highway corridor largely support undergrounding. In comments provided for the Fairfax County General Assembly Delegation’s Pre-2021 Session Public Hearing in January 2021, the Mount Vernon Lee Chamber of Commerce said the county needed to pursue a strategic long-range plan to underground utilities in older revitalization areas to match newer development in the county.
“Undergrounding of utilities promotes economic development,” wrote chamber representatives. “It is part of a modern infrastructure that is expected by consumers and required for new development. Where an investment has been made to provide modern infrastructure, developers are more likely to be attracted to that area and produce viable projects.”
The chamber said that requiring the private sector to foot the bill for the utility work might make sense in some regions with sufficient economic redevelopment potential — but not in a revitalization zone like the corridor where it would likely cause a drag on future development.
Another key stakeholder along the corridor, the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations (MVCCA), also has long been an advocate for undergrounding.
“We advised VDOT and FCDOT [Fairfax County Department of Transportation] years ago that they should be designing the widening of the highway to include this undergrounding,” said an MVCCA representative. “It makes no financial sense to us, the taxpayers, to pay to have the utility poles taken down and then pay to put them back up. And then at some time in the future, pay to take them down again while tearing up the highway, so the utilities can be put underground.”
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Storck intends to bring up the undergrounding issue at the Board of Supervisors’ Economic Revitalization meeting on July 26 and hopes to secure enough support for his plan to bring it up for a vote at a full board meeting.
Storck’s plan envisions creating a Reliable Utility/Undergrounding Reserve (RUR) that provides for the strategic investment of funds for increasing utility reliability through undergrounding and that has a net annual cost of less than $5 million. The sources of funding would include redevelopment proffers from properties benefiting from the improvements and a county-wide commercial and/or residential meter fee collected on behalf of the county by the electric utility. According to county staff’s estimates, the electric utility per meter fee, at the maximum rates, would generate up to $40 million in annual revenues ($4 million residential and $36 million commercial). Although the total cost of utility undergrounding along the entire length of the Richmond Highway corridor is still an unknown, Storck estimates that it’s probably in the $90-$100 million range.
The most important things the meter-generated funds would do is enable the start of the undergrounding process and assure bondholders of their eventual repayment, he said.
Other parts of Fairfax County also would be able to tap into the funding pool for undergrounding projects, added Storck, though the Richmond Highway project would take precedence. His staff is still working out how long it would take other parts of the county to be able to use the fund. “It could be five to 15 years,” said Storck, “but things could happen faster than expected.”
The Mount Vernon District Supervisor has been urging his colleagues and local residents to view the funding pool as an investment for the entire county. “The core of the revolving fund is that you upfront dollars for Richmond Highway because that’s what’s needed to do it now, but in a decade, the dollars help fund other projects,” he said. “You have to prime the pump to get it off the ground — then it becomes self-replenishing and creates opportunities for other areas.”
Storck acknowledged there are a few potential complicating factors around the decision to underground utilities on Route 1 right now. The first is inflation — a factor that’s hit the construction industry particularly hard. The second is the delay that undergrounding would cause in beginning the Richmond Highway widening process. Storck estimates there could be a one to three-year delay and has questioned whether that’s palatable to area residents and businesses. Finally, and perhaps of most concern, is the fact that the county is in the process of securing Federal Transit Administration funding for the Richmond Highway BRT construction project. That funding is predicated on completing a multi-step, competitive process, and the undergrounding delay could put the funding at risk.
McKay, now chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sees BRT — also known as The One — as a cornerstone to the corridor’s transformation and, as such, feels that keeping its construction on time and under budget is vital to long-term plans for South County.
“I fully support and have always supported the undergrounding of utilities wherever and whenever feasible, as it adds not just to the aesthetics of an area but also is important for safety, maintenance and reliability reasons,” said McKay. "If undergrounding can be accomplished within the framework and budget of our Route 1 work including The One, I look forward to supporting and seeing it done. If undergrounding results in construction delays or cost overruns that could slow or even derail our important work, then it is a discussion we will need to continue to have as a Board and throughout the county."
The dwindling of time before the kick-off of the Richmond Highway construction projects means that now is make or break time for incorporating utility undergrounding as part of it, says Storck. Besides making utility service more reliable along the corridor, he and other advocates say undergrounding has the potential to enhance economic development, improve property values and make the Richmond Highway area and other communities more attractive places to live.
“Undergrounding of the unsightly utility lines will really make this stretch of the corridor much more marketable and aesthetically pleasing,” said Delegate Krizek. “I’m hopeful that the Supervisor will get this across the finish line.”
In the bigger picture, Storck believes that undergrounding utilities — to include electric, cable, phone and fiber — would “bring Fairfax County into the future,” putting the county in a leadership position throughout the state by establishing a model for other city and county governments to follow.
“The core of all this is — will folks 50 years from now expect utilities to be undergrounded, and the answer is absolutely yes,” said Storck. “My most essential job in representing the community is to make the best possible long-term decisions, even if it’s uncomfortable in the short term to make them happen.”