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The Price of Scenic Preservation

The high cost of burying utility cables underground is prohibitive for Great Falls and McLean.

Georgetown Pike is one of the scenic byways that dot the Virginia countryside, a narrow, two-lane piece of highway that curves from just outside McLean through Great Falls until it meets with Route 7 outside Reston.

The only thing that would make Georgetown Pike better, some residents of Great Falls think, would be removing the utility poles that take up space along the side of the roads and burying the utility lines underground.

Eleanor Weck, a member of the Great Falls Citizens Association, has been working for several years to gather information about having utility lines buried underground on a four-mile stretch of Georgetown Pike, from Riverbend Road out through Rt. 7.

“We’ve passed information around to the [GFCA] board, and I’ve been working on getting representatives from Dominion, Cox and Verizon together to talk to us about our options,” she said. However, the waterline project in Riverside Manor was a time-consuming struggle that caused a meeting between the three utilities and the GFCA to be rescheduled several times, and it has not yet happened.

“Dominion would have to underground their cables first because everything else runs on their poles, and they’ve made it clear they have no intention of doing that because it’s expensive,” Weck said.

Another reason Dominion should consider putting their power lines underground is simply to improve service, she said. When a storm with strong wind passes through Great Falls, a portion of the community loses power every time, without fail.

“Their position is to take down trees to eliminate the problem, but we’d rather have them put their lines underground,” she said. Some trees would have to be cut to lay the cables underground, she acknowledges, ‘but we could plant more trees on top of the cables later.”

PRELIMINARY ESTIMATES of the cost to bury Dominion wires are at about $12 million for the stretch of Georgetown Pike from Old Dominion to Route 7, where the GFCA would like to have the lines buried.

“If the power lines are buried, Cox and Verizon would have to cover some of the cost of burying their cables as well,” Weck said.

There has been a bit of good fortune in McLean, where burying utility cables underground has been done in small sections through projects of the Revitalization Corporation, a group of local businesses working to revamp the downtown McLean area.

“There was a bond issue passed by the county in 1988 that originally called for burying utilities in the downtown area of McLean and provided $2 million towards that effort,” said Dan DuVal, a member of the Revitalization Corporation. Some success was reached when the Exxon station at the corner of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion remodeled last year and paid to have the utilities put underground at the time, he said.

“Our current focus is the area between Corner Lane and Laughlin on Chain Bridge Road,” DuVal said. There has been discussion with county officials, and preliminary studies have been done, “but we’ve got to go through a lot more planning, but it’s hopefully moving along.”

Burying utilities is just one facet of the revitalization effort, he said. “We’ve been working on this for two-and-a-half, maybe three years now,” DuVal said. “Ideally, you want as much as you can get in a way that makes the most sense for everyone, but there are obviously construction and dislocation problems. There’s a desire to underground as much as can be reasonably done.”

Verizon, which is becoming a major player in the high-speed Internet provider world, is planning on “putting in a fiber optic system in the McLean hamlet and has been working on that for over a year,” said Paul Weiland, who has been helping to work on the project in McLean.

“Eventually, we hope to have all utilities underground from Westmoreland to the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion from Arlington to Great Falls,” he said. “The area of Great Falls is difficult, so it probably won’t happen there next week or next year because it’s a long process.”

It’s also a very costly process.

“The way this works is if a locality or customer wants to have their utilities put underground we’re happy to do that at their costs,” said LeHa Anderson, manager for media and community relations at Dominion Power.

“A lot of times new developments will request that the wires are put underground, but the cost is incurred by the developer,” she said. “In McLean this discussion has been going on for eight or nine years and expense has been the issue. We have not been approached for a cost analysis by Great Falls yet, but if they would like to do that, if they can pay for the cost of burying the wires, we’d do it,” she said.

THERE ARE MANY variables on this sort of project, Anderson said, such as the type of dirt, how deep the lines would have to be buried, whether some sort of conduit would need to be installed to maintain air pressure around the lines. “There’s no chart on this to make it an easy estimate,” she said.

Some municipalities have ordinances in place that mandate that any new wires must be installed underground, such as the town oHerndon and Arlington County. “McLean and Great Falls don’t have that type of ordinance. Neither does Fairfax County,” she said.

Alex Horowitz, director of public affairs for Cox, said his company would be “happy to speak with the GFCA on the issue and come to an agreement” about having their lines buried underground.

“What they’re thinking of doing is extremely costly, labor intensive and lengthy,” he said. “I’d be interested in speaking with the other utility companies to learn about their solutions as well.”

Verizon has also displayed an interest in talking with the GFCA about what options are available.

“The scale and scope of the project needs to be defined,” said Lee Gierczynski, a spokesperson for Verizon. “We’d need to identify the telephone facilities impacted, the types of circuits, the size of the cables involved, the number of customers, even the type of soil in the area. It all determines how the cords can be buried.”

The engineering process for this type of project can take years to develop a plan, he said, and the cost could easily be in the millions per mile.

“We get requests like this all fairly often and we’re more than willing to work with as many municipalities as we can, as long as they’re willing to finance the costs,” he said. “Our engineers design projects to maximize cost effectiveness, which is smart business because there’s a lot of time and resources involved.”

SO FOR WECK, members of the GFCA and the continuing revitalization process in McLean, there’s a lot of work to be done before buried utilities become a widespread reality.

“What we have understood is that the only help we can get is for Dominion to agree to bury their lines for scenic reasons along Georgetown Pike,” Weck said. “I think it will happen eventually, but money is a problem. Currently, the only way for us to pay for it is to tax ourselves.”

In the meantime, Dominion has said it is switching the electrical service in Great Falls to a loop system, so when one section loses power in a storm the entire community does not go dark, she said.

“We hope to get [Delegate Vince] Callahan and [Senator Janet] Howell together with the utilities to discuss our options,” Weck said.