Highway design moves forward; Storck says undergrounding utilities remains goal

Storck in a screenshot from the meeting
Storck speaks during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck said Tuesday that while no agreement has been reached on undergrounding utilities as part of the Richmond Highway widening project, he is continuing to work on the issue even as the project moves forward.

Storck and his fellow supervisors voted at Tuesday’s Board meeting to recommend VDOT proceed with the most recent design presented to the public, which envisions above-ground utilities along the 3 miles of road affected.

“We have not found a path yet, we are still looking at it,” Storck said of undergrounding, calling the widening project a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to get utility lines buried along the highway.

The widening project will make Richmond Highway three lanes in each direction between Jeff Todd Way and Sherwood Hall Lane while leaving room in the median for future bus rapid transit (BRT), which will be added as part of a separate project. Bike lanes — with north and south tracks on each side of the highway — and pedestrian sidewalks will be on both sides of the road. Two pedestrian underpasses will also be included in the project.

But underground utilities have not been part of the design for the $372 million project so far, largely due to a lack of consensus on how to pay for it. The issue heated up in the spring after State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36) sponsored legislation that would allow the county to pass a tax of no more than $1 month to county residents’ power bills to help pay for the project. But there has been no agreement on implementing the fee, and utility providers and local officials have been at odds over who should pay for the extra $45 million the undergrounding is estimated to cost.

There have been talks on the issue, including a June meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Revitalization Committee. Storck, other Board members and county officials met with representatives from Dominion Energy, Comcast, Verizon and Cox Communications to discuss the ins and outs of undergrounding (the meeting can be watched here). Because of assorted factors, like the high number of crossings over the road, undergrounding as part of the Richmond Highway widening project is much costlier than Prince William County’s undergrounding of utilities during their Route 1 widening project earlier this decade, according to a document proved by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

Multiple funding scenarios were discussed at the meeting, including the possibility of implementing the $1 fee for all county customers. Both Braddock District Supervisor John Cook and Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smyth each questioned the tax, however, saying it would be unusual for residents to pay extra for a project not in their district.

“I’ve said before, I can’t agree to have folks in my district pay on their bill for something they get no benefit from,” said Cook.

Undergrounding utilities, if the decision is made now, could also delay the Richmond Highway widening project. Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny said in June that design of the duct bank would take about a year, and then it would take another year to build the duct bank.

Storck said at Tuesday’s meeting that with the general design of the widening project moving forward, the window for finding a solution to undergrounding is closing. Noting that “time is not our friend,” Storck it nevertheless remained crucial to include undergrounding as part of the widening project.

“We cannot let this go, we will not get another opportunity to do it,” Storck said.

Questions about road width

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, while recommending the design move forward at Tuesday’s Board meeting, noted that there had been some community pushback against the 178-foot right-of-way the widening project calls for. Some citizens and groups, including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said a road that wide would encourage speeding and present a barrier for pedestrians to cross.

McKay asked Biesiadny if any flexibility remained on that with the project’s current design that would allow for a narrower right-of-way.

“There has been extensive outreach [on the widening project and Embark] and I don’t want to undo that at this point,” McKay said. “I would just say for the record there do remain some concerns from some in the community that this is a lot of right of way.”

Biesiadny said it would be difficult because the county had worked with a number of different stakeholders to meet the requirements for the widening project. He noted that the current cross section includes the separated bicycle and pedestrian paths, as well as area for landscaping. Because of the various requirements, major changes to the design for the 3.1 mile stretch affected by the project would be tough, Biesiadny said. He added that design changes for the northern part of the highway, which will be widened as part of the Richmond Highway BRT project, are stil possible.

“For this particular project, I would say that there here are still some tweaks, but in general this is moving forward with the cross section that has been outlined,” said Biesiadny.

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  1. Garry A. Scutt