Selectmen Recommend Town Meeting Approval to Put Utility Wires Underground in Historic District
By Kim Siebert MacPhail
As a first phase to the Great Road Master Plan improvements that will render the center of town “more aesthetically pleasing, with amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to numerous safety enhancements for vehicles,” the Selectmen unanimously approved adoption of Annual Town Meeting Article 18, which would amend Bedford’s General Bylaws, Article 47—Street, Sidewalks and Public Property.
Article 18 proposes that “overhead-mounted utilities” from Bacon Road to the property line of 41 North Road be placed underground. A short section of South Road—from the intersection the Great Road to the far side of Maple Street—is included in the plan. In all, the project encompasses 1,644 feet of linear streetscape.
“In order for utilities to be placed underground,” Town Manager Reed said, “the laws of the Commonwealth require that the Town adopt a bylaw amendment ordering the utilities [to do the work]. What happens after this is [if Town Meeting approves the article], the results are sent to the utility company and they develop the plans and a price estimate for completing the project. The utility company’s cost is [covered] by a 2% surcharge on utilities bills for as long as it takes to pay off the cost of the project.”
The last time the Selectmen discussed Article 18, a question arose about who would pay for running the connecting utility lines from the newly buried wires to the homes and businesses along the street. DPW Director Rich Warrington reported— by his estimates— that the total cost of street-to-building connection within the project scope would come to about $120,000 or approximately $3,000 for each of the 43 home or business properties.
“That would be to carry the underground electric [wires] from the [juncture] just on the property line to the house meter,” Warrington said. “In some cases, the house meter is ancient—and some work has to be done there to accommodate the underground cable or conduit. The fortunate part is that most of these are residential-style buildings that have been converted to commercial buildings.”
The Town, Reed said, would cover street-to-building connection costs. NSTAR would put the wires underground but then reclaim the cost of the project over time through the 2% surcharge. However, NSTAR will not draw up cost estimates for the project until citizens have demonstrated their approval by supporting Article 18 at Town Meeting. If that occurs this April, NSTAR has until January 2014 to begin the engineering study. Six months after that the work would start, Warrington estimated.
Based on a similar initiative in the past, Warrington estimates that the 2% surcharge would last about three years, although it is not possible to be more specific until the project has been estimated following an engineering study.
”For the last underground project, we were never charged [a surcharge] by Comcast or Verizon,” Warrington said. “Verizon, at least, can charge because they are a utility. But I believe, under Massachusetts law, that Comcast is not a utility so they cannot charge us. Neither of them charges for going from the sidewalk to the house, in terms of the private Comcast line or the private Verizon line. They install those at their cost.”
“The last time [we did this sort of project], we had problems dealing with Boston Edison,” Warrington added. “We never got a true estimate of the work. Even when we filed a formal complaint with [the Department of Public Utilities], we still got [only] pieces until we finally got a hen scratch [estimate] that took a bit to decipher. I would hope we have a better arrangement with NSTAR this time around.”
“What kind of tearing up of sidewalks do you anticipate?” Selectman Bill Moonan asked.
“One good thing is that Verizon has many underground conduits,” answered Warrington. “They have banks of conduits on the right side of the Great Road as you head west that carry most of their equipment underground. In fact, that’s where most of the town’s fire alarm cable is located, as a courtesy from Verizon.
“Comcast will be a very simple installation,” Warrington continued. “NSTAR will have some fairly complicated chambers that will have to be built that will undoubtedly be right in the middle of the road, but we’ve dealt with it before. It’ll probably be every 500 feet with access through manholes.
“But it’s a one-time issue. When I saw photos of The Great Road of before and after. . . .It doesn’t take much to convince you that that’s the way to go,” Warrington added, “especially in the Historic District.”
In all, 31 telephone poles would be removed; instead, a series of smaller scale, “decorative pole” street lamps would be placed along the sidewalks, probably on both sides of the road.
The Great Road Master Plan design included some examples of lamp styles, but Warrington said there would be ample opportunity for the Historic District Commission to contribute feedback before choices were made. The illumination technology, he said, would probably be LED (light emitting diodes), a method that uses less energy than either conventional or compact fluorescent bulbs.
“To me, this is certainly worth pursuing,” said Selectman Mike Rosenberg, “regardless of all the difficulties we’ve had with NSTAR and the [Middlesex] Turnpike and the double poles and what have you. That’s our utility, so that’s who we have to work with. This, to me, is the gateway to the Great Road Master Plan.”
Other aspects of the Great Road Master Plan—such as the crossing at Hillside and Bacon, the traffic light at Mudge Way, and the traffic light at South Road, Springs Road and Great Road—were identified as pieces of the overall project that could move forward while the town awaits action on the utility wires.