To improve the city’s aesthetic appeal and take advantage of an anticipated Route 1 redesign, College Park City Council members discussed the possibility of undergrounding utilities between College Avenue and Route 193 during Tuesday night’s work session.
“For a long time, the city of College Park has looked at burying the utilities lines and placing them underground because they’re not that attractive,” city Mayor Andy Fellows said. “For decades, it’s been our agenda to work towards putting them underground.”
The city is in a unique position to underground its utilities now, in conjunction with the planned redevelopment of Route 1, District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan said.
“This is an opportunity that is going to come around again probably not for another 100 years. By doing these things together, you’re taking advantage of the opportunity to access those renovations and incorporate those renovations for undergrounding utilities into the road renovation,” Brennan said. “Those types of infrastructure projects don’t happen regularly.”
The council has until April 1 to decide whether it wants to move forward with the project, reject it or ask to postpone the decision.
“At this point we’ve moved to a place, finally, after really years and years of looking at this, where we have the opportunity to really discuss the specifics of financing and decide if we want to move forward,” Fellows said. “It’s kind of exciting that we’ve gotten as far as we have. This is a great stride forward.”
The project will have drawbacks, however. If the council supports undergrounding utilities, District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir said it would delay Route 1 developments at least five years. Additionally, the city commissioned the State Highway Administration last year to conduct a study on the project’s feasibility. The SHA consultant estimated it would take 75 months and cost approximately $14 million to underground the utilities. The county would shoulder $4 million of the cost, but the remaining $10 million burden on the city worries Kabir. The total city budget is $14.6 million.
“If the city needs to pay $10 million, I’m uncomfortable, honestly speaking from all the feedback I got from the residents, and they’re not comfortable,” Kabir said.
Brennan said he suports undergrounding utilities but is worried about the cost. He cited state Sen. Jim Rosapepe’s (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel) statement that if the option to underground utilities were free, the city would continue without hesitation. But there is a cost, Brennan said, and it must be considered.
“The things that we really need to look at is the best value that this is going to bring to the long-term College Park and the community that we’re trying to create in the next five years with all this rapid development,” he said. “And then what that cost is actually going to be to the city and to the taxpayer.”
Kabir said undergrounding utilities is also a city safety improvement, citing previous power outages due to severe weather conditions.
“It will be safe for the utilities itself,” Kabir said. “Every time there’s a storm … utilities lines get cut off.”
Although $14 million would be a burden on the city budget, Fellows said he hopes city officials will collaborate to figure out how to make undergrounding utilities “financially doable for the city.”
Brennan said he is hopeful the aesthetic and economic benefits undergrounding utilities could have on the city will come to pass.
“Having a more attractive main corridor attracts business and, in turn, has a ripple affect and attracts people to come to those businesses. It attracts people to come and live in the community; it makes it a more attractive place to walk, to be part of,” Brennan said. “There are economic ramifications that come from those things that are a great value or can be a great value to the city.”