Project to underground Richmond Highway utilities challenged by cost, delays and risk

Richmond Highway (via Fairfax County)

A project to underground Richmond Highway utilities may be buried due to cost, construction delays, and the risk it poses to federal funding for other projects happening along the corridor.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors weighed the pros and cons of undergrounding utilities along the highway, also known as Route 1, at an economic initiatives committee meeting on Tuesday (July 26).

Undergrounding utilities is a fairly common (and supported) practice, but the Route 1 proposal is complicated by two other major infrastructure projects in the corridor: the highway widening and the build-out of a bus rapid transit (BRT) service.

While the board didn’t take any definitive action on Tuesday, it was clear that a number of committee members, including Chairman Jeff McKay, were leaning towards scrapping the project altogether.

“It feels a little bit like ‘why wouldn’t we do it?’ if you just look at it on the surface, but as we dug into it today quite a bit…it makes it a little bit clearer how unclear it is,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said.

In a presentation, staff said the county would be solely responsible for financing any undergrounding, with no assistance from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) or the Federal Transit Authority (FTA).

Undergrounding utilities could also result in a two-year delay for the Route 1 widening and BRT projects, tacking on an extra year each for design work and construction. That would push the completion date for the widening to 2031 and for the BRT to 2032.

Utility undergrounding would also increase the cost of the two projects by at least $264 million, requiring an additional $136 million for the actual construction and potentially another $128 million to account for inflation during the two-year delay.

Potential costs of Richmond Highway utility undergrounding (via Fairfax County)

To raise the needed funds, county staff proposed working with the General Assembly to implement a utility “surcharge.” A $1 per month surcharge for residents and a 2.5% surcharge on commercial properties that could reach a maximum of 6.67% would bring in $40 million in revenue annually.

However, a surcharge would require an agreement with utility companies, mainly Dominion Energy, Verizon, Cox, and NOVEC. Even if an agreement is reached, it could take 12 to 18 months for the companies to sign off through their own “internal legal review” processes, delaying the undergrounding even more.

According to staff, undergrounding utilities could also result in the loss of $334 million in federal funding that the FTA is providing for the BRT project.

Since the costs of the project would rise and it won’t generate any additional ridership, the FTA would likely downgrade the project from a “high” rating to potentially “medium-low,” county staff said. By law, the authority is prohibited from funding projects with a rating lower than “medium.”

Undergrounding utilities would add “substantial financial risk” to the county and the two other projects happening along the corridor, staff said.

“I’m thinking of these restaurants, these nail salons, all of these businesses struggling to survive and adding this [surcharge],” Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith said. “I personally have a lot of issues getting to undergrounding when looking at all of our needs and priorities. It’s hard for me to see the benefit of undergrounding at this point.”

Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia officials have been looking at undergrounding more utilities for a decade now, ever since a storm in June 2012 took out electricity and phone service across the region, according to On the MoVe.

Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck said he hears from constituents all the time about undergrounding on Richmond Highway and believes that many in the community support it.

It would improve service reliability, minimize conflicts with trees and signage, improve roadway safety by eliminating potential hazards, and reduce visual clutter, which could help businesses along the corridor.

“If you look at the utilities out there [on Route 1] today, how could you not be disturbed by that?” McKay said. “They go every which way, they dangle low, they are on crooked poles, they’ve got stuff hanging all over them. They are on both sides of the road, they are intrusive, and they are ugly.”

While the consequences for the Richmond Highway widening and BRT may outweigh the benefits to some, several board members suggested finding other ways to better organize overhead utilities and make them more visually acceptable could be prioritized in those projects.

The committee agreed to consult with the FTA to get a more definitive answer on how the undergrounding project would affect federal funding for the BRT.

“I understand everyone’s desire to underground utilities,” McKay said. “For me, if we can’t get the federal funding to make [the BRT] project happen, then we can’t underground. That’s the reality of the financial situation.”