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The cell tower by I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge in McLean (via Google Maps)

A cell tower by the Capital Beltway in McLean must be removed before the end of this year to make way for the road’s widening, leaving Fairfax County and state transportation leaders scrambling to prevent future service disruptions.

The 135-foot-tall monopole stands right next to I-495 at the Old Dominion Drive bridge, which will be replaced by a new two-lane bridge with a shared-use path as part of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s I-495 Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project.

VDOT determined that the tower needs to be relocated “well over a year ago,” but no progress has been made to identify a temporary or permanent new site, Megaprojects Director Susan Shaw told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Friday (Sept. 30).

“The providers to date have said that there is no temporary location that’s acceptable to them,” she said. “…We’re all working very hard to try to resolve it, and I think we’ve tried to provide a lot of ideas for where they might find acceptable locations on VDOT right of way, but again, we’re not experts. It’s very specific technically in terms of what would work for them and maintaining the kind of service that they have.”

Construction on 495 NEXT is underway, but work hasn’t started yet on the Old Dominion bridge.

American Cell Towers, which owns the monopole, initially faced a Sept. 30 deadline for the removal, but that has been extended to Dec. 31. The tower has to be decommissioned in November so that the utilities can be taken off and the structure dismantled, according to Shaw.

In conversations with AT&T and T-Mobile, the providers that use the pole, VDOT was told that service along the Beltway won’t be affected, but service for the surrounding communities “would be degraded,” particularly during periods of peak demand, Shaw said.

AT&T confirmed that some of its customers “may experience intermittent wireless service disruptions near Old Dominion Drive and the Capital Beltway.”

“We, like other carriers, are being forced to remove our antennas so that they can widen the Beltway,” an AT&T spokesperson said. “We apologize for the inconvenience, and we are working with state and Fairfax County officials to identify an alternative site for our equipment. In the meantime, we have optimized other nearby sites to try and extend coverage until this is resolved.”

The provider added that people who experience disruptions can utilize its Wi-Fi Calling service instead.

While the availability of other cell carriers in the area suggests 911 calls won’t be affected, Shaw said the providers told VDOT they “couldn’t guarantee” that there would be no impact. American Towers didn’t immediately respond to FFXnow’s requests for comment. Read More

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Construction is expected to start this week on a sidewalk for Alma Street SE in Vienna (via Google Maps)

A sidewalk is coming to Vienna’s Alma Street SE, whether the residents there want it or not.

Construction to add about 1,500 linear feet of concrete, curb and gutter, driveway aprons, and ramps on the northwest side between Follin Lane and Delano Drive will begin by the end of this week, the Town of Vienna shared on Monday (Aug. 8).

One of many sidewalks in the works as part of Vienna’s Robinson Trust Sidewalk Initiative, the Alma Street project drew some particularly strong opposition from residents along the road, who petitioned against the proposal as it moved through the engineering and design process last year.

The town maintains that the sidewalk is needed for older residents, people with mobility challenges, and anyone else who doesn’t want to walk in the roadway or might benefit from the accompanying ramp, crosswalk and other accessibility improvements.

“The Town believes that sidewalks are an important amenity for residents of a street — and for the community at large,” Department of Public Works Engineer Robert Froh said in an email. “Sidewalks promote good health and pedestrian safety, connect individuals and destinations in the community, support Town businesses and sustainability goals, and enhance the ‘greater good’ of the community — today and in the future.”

A flier dated Aug. 4 that a resident shared with FFXnow said construction would take about three weeks, depending on weather. It will require relocations of water meters for five houses, and homeowners were told to move sprinkler systems and any personal belongings out of the right-of-way.

Street also targeted for Dominion undergrounding project

The resident says they learned earlier this week that Dominion Energy will underground its electric lines, which are on the same side of Alma Street as the incoming sidewalk, leading them to question the location and timing of construction.

Dominion Energy confirmed it has a project for Alma Street SE under its Strategic Underground Program, which focuses on moving its “most outage-prone overhead power lines” underground. Read More

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Boats docked at Lake Anne Plaza (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Cellular service issues continue to plague residents in the Lake Anne area of Reston, but a recently added, temporary truck will at least ensure AT&T customers can call 911.

A spokesperson for AT&T said that since Friday (July 29) — when information about the outage was first released — the company has been trying to restore an antenna in the area.

AT&T says it is working on placing a temporary cellular support truck in the Lake Anne area to help give customers a boost and improve service until the issue is resolved.

“We have deployed temporary emergency coverage for first responders, and are working as quickly as possible to restore full service in the area. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience,” an AT&T spokesperson told FFXnow.

The company did not provide information on when the issue was first identified and what efforts have been made to restore the site.

However, Fairfax County said in a statement that it worked with the telecommunications company “to expedite placement of a cellular support vehicle” that was put in place Saturday morning (July 30).

“The AT&T cellular support vehicle allows for residents to call 9-1-1 and provides cellular coverage for public safety,” county spokesperson Tony Castrilli said. “The full restoration for AT&T customers in Lake Anne is scheduled to be completed in two weeks.”

The problem comes after Verizon and other cell carriers removed a cell phone communications facility at the rooftop of Lake Anne Fellowship House, which is set to be demolished next year.

Fairfax County is encouraging residents to use a landline or make calls through the WiFi on devices where that’s an option.

A spokesperson for Verizon said the company is actively looking for a replacement site. Its original plans fell earlier this year. Since then, the company says that it has been looking for another site but with no success.

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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. Read More

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