July 11, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 27

Telephone poles, wires to stay

Borough officials this week said recent efforts to bury view-obstructing utility lines at the intersection of Front Street and Old Haines Highway are “dead.”

The state Department of Transportation’s reluctance to work with the borough on burying the lines this far into the project plus the expense involved have effectively “squashed” the idea, said public facilities director Carlos Jimenez.

Pat Carroll, DOT’s design chief for Southeast, said DOT talked with the borough about burying the lines when the project was still in its design phase, but it wasn’t clear this week when, where or with whom that discussion occurred.

Carroll said DOT informed the borough it would chip in toward the burial up to the expense of the above-ground relocation, but the borough did not bite.

“Everything beyond that would have been funded by the city, and that opportunity is now gone because we’ve already done the over-land relocation,” Carroll said.

Manager Mark Earnest, though, said he did not recall any discussion about the state paying the cost of relocating utilities with the borough paying the difference for the underground burial.

“In hindsight, that would have been a good conversation, but unfortunately it’s moot now,” Earnest said.

Assembly member Debra Schnabel also said she does not remember having that option clearly presented to anyone at the borough.

Asked who DOT spoke to at the borough, DOT’s regional preconstruction engineer Chuck Correa declined comment.

“The department would be happy to discuss this issue with borough officials, including the process and communications that took place while this project was under development. However, we’re unwilling to air this out in the media,” Correa said.

In an email sent from Keith Karpstein, DOT’s engineering manager for Southeast, to Earnest in May 2012, Karpstein said it was already late in the process to discuss burying lines as it would require completion of a new environmental document.

The assembly called an emergency meeting last month to discuss burial of the utilities before asphalt is laid on the state-funded construction project at Front Street and Haines Highway. When presented with cost estimates at a later meeting, the assembly decided not to take action on the issue.

Jimenez said between materials, excavation, and burial of power and communications lines, the project would cost roughly $250,000.

“It’s too expensive,” said Mayor Stephanie Scott. “And you can’t use cruise ship money to bury the utilities. At least that’s the in-house conclusion.”

Alaska Power and Telephone recently relocated several large power poles as part of the intersection’s reconstruction, obstructing the view and raising concern from residents and assembly members.

Jimenez said the state is “not interested” in working with the borough on the project at this point, because it would have to re-open its environmental impact statement and adding the work could jeopardize the project’s Sept. 15 “substantial completion” date.

Carroll said the project’s environmental assessment and permitting were performed for a certain scope of work, and burying utilities would fall outside that.

Assembly member Norm Smith, who initially approached the issue of burying the lines with enthusiasm, said the push to bury the lines is “dead” because of a lack of cooperation from the state.  

“They always say they don’t have any money, but there’s money out there. They just don’t want to give any more to Haines,” Smith said.

In terms of pursuing some sort of policy change or code modification to require utility line burial in the future, Smith said someone else would need to take the lead on that one.

Borough planning commission chair Rob Goldberg said no one has contacted him to look into the issue, although assembly member Debra Schnabel informally provided Goldberg with sample code language from other municipalities.

“We haven’t been directed to do anything about it. If the assembly wants us to look at it, we will,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said even if the commission had registered a complaint about the poles with DOT, the department never listens to them anyway.

“I think we just figured that the lines would stay where they were...If we had recommended underground wires, they probably would have ignored that recommendation, too,” Goldberg said.

Manager Mark Earnest said he is continuing to research possible avenues for changes in code to address the underground utility issue, but justifying the expensive burial of lines for aesthetic reasons is difficult when other borough facilities have functional problems.

“It’s a matter of looking at what are the total needs of the community: looking at roads that are dusty and washboarding and all of these problems and weighing that against burying a few lines,” he said.