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Franklin considers new approach to interrupted skylines

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Power lines in downtown Franklin interfere with the view of the courthouse. Officials would like more existing utility lines buried but are concerned that costs could be prohibitive, especially in tight spaces such as downtown. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Power lines in downtown Franklin interfere with the view of the courthouse. Officials would like more existing utility lines buried but are concerned that costs could be prohibitive, especially in tight spaces such as downtown. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Fifty years from now, residents or visitors in Franklin could look up and not see wooden utility poles or wires running down streets to homes and businesses.

Utility poles holding 10 wires each run down U.S. 31 on Franklin’s north side, cluttering the skyline. But turn into a subdivision such as Knollwood Farms, and the utility cables all disappear because they’re underground.

City officials are considering a long-term plan to have all utility lines, including electric, telephone, cable and fiber-optic, buried underground. The plan would eliminate problems with downed power lines during storms or traffic accidents, while also creating a cleaner look for the city by removing poles and wires cluttering the roadside, city officials said.

Current rules in Franklin, Greenwood and the county already require utility companies to bury lines being run to new subdivisions or business developments.

The dirt on proposal

Buried: Franklin is considering a new rule that would require utility companies to bury utility lines wherever possible when they are doing maintenance or for city projects, such as road construction.

Benefits: Power lines would no longer be damaged or knocked down in storms. City officials also think the effort would help beautify the city by removing old wooden utility poles and wires that clutter up the city skyline.

Costs: Costs can vary significantly based on the project and type of utility line. While sometimes the utility company will assume the cost of moving or burying a line, the city often has to pay for that work. City council members are gathering more information about potential costs if they create the new rules.

First: Franklin, Greenwood and the county all require utilities be underground for new developments. But Franklin would be the first to push to get existing utility lines buried.

But Franklin officials now want to focus on trying to clean up the areas developed decades ago by requiring lines to be buried whenever rehabilitation projects, including road construction or utility upgrades, are started.

Burying cables typically costs more than hanging them overhead, utility companies said. Those costs can vary significantly project by project, depending on factors including the type of lines, what’s already underground, how many buildings the power lines serve or whether lines have to go under roads or sidewalks.

The city and homeowners could have to pay more in order to get utility companies to bury the cables, the city engineer said. City council members are trying to gather more information to understand the long-term costs and who pays them before deciding whether to approve new rules for utility lines, city council member Steve Barnett said.

City officials aren’t sure whether they could or want to pay those costs, however, because they’re not sure yet what they might be. Council members will then have to decide whether setting new rules for buried lines will be worth the long-term costs, Barnett said.

“It’s not meant to cost homeowners anything and not meant to cost the city a bunch of money. But it’s something we want to do over the long haul,” he said.

Having power lines underground solves safety issues, such as electrical lines being knocked down in a storm. But beautification is the main reason city council members are considering the new rules.

“It’s unsightly at times to drive through parts of our town and you see the old wooden poles with a dozen wires stringing off of them, you can bury them and it eliminates that,” city council member Rob Henderson said.

Northside Indianapolis communities such as Carmel, Fishers and Zionsville have greater percentages of underground utilities and look sharp because of it, council member Richard Wertz said.

Franklin is already undertaking other beautification projects such as the downtown streetscape project, which is replacing streets and sidewalks and adding trees, decorative lighting and benches throughout the downtown. Since the city is spending millions of dollars to improve the look of downtown, it makes sense for the city to also find ways to remove unsightly utility poles and cables that block the skyline and loop from building to building, Barnett said.

The process of burying cables isn’t as easy as just making the decision to require it, utility companies said.

The cost to bury electrical cables can vary substantially from place to place depending on what kind of lines, where they run, what else is underground and what other utilities are tied onto a pole, Duke Energy district manager Steve Bahr said. In some areas, such as downtown Franklin, burying cables might be significantly more expensive because the company might have to work in narrow alleys or convert many buildings for underground power, he said.

Who should pay to move utilities also isn’t always clear. Utility companies may assume the cost of moving, replacing or burying a line during a street project if the utility needed maintenance anyway, Franklin city engineer Travis Underhill said. Otherwise the city might have to pay if it wants a power company to bury a cable while a street is torn up, he said.

“It is wishy-washy because it is totally dependent on the project in question and the existing infrastructure on that project. But in almost all cases there will be some cost to the city. Nobody does anything for free,” he said.

For example, if Franklin wanted to bury a power cable serving a residential area, Duke Energy would need to make upgrades to a home’s power meter when changed from overhead to underground power. That cost would have to be paid by someone other than the utility if the maintenance work wasn’t planned or necessary, Bahr said.

The cost of either burying a line or hanging it on a pole can be so significant it can also influence where a company like Metronet runs new fiber-optic lines, consultant Steve Biggerstaff said.

Since several utilities such as electric, cable, telephone or fiberoptic all may be hanging from a wooden pole, the city then has to coordinate with all of those companies.

“It’s just not an easy yes or no question. It’s a detailed analysis and then looking at whether there is an expense associated with it. Now you’ve got to work with the cable and the telephone because they’ve got to go somewhere, too,” Bahr said.

Some larger power lines, like those that run down U.S. 31 through Franklin, might never be able to be buried because of the number of cables, the amount of power they carry and the cost to take down poles and put wires underground, Bahr said.

City officials recognize that it would be too expensive to demand that all lines be buried over a short time frame. The city would look to target lines that have to be moved or replaced anyway as part of rehabilitation projects, which could reduce the cost for both the utility and city, Mayor Joe McGuinness said.

For example, if the city is going to tear up a road and sidewalk and the power company already has to move a utility pole, it can then bury the line before the road is rebuilt. That would save the utility company the cost of having to tear up pavement or bore underground, which can be a major expense.

Barnett, who works for a company that installs natural gas lines, thinks the burial costs should be manageable for any utility based on what he knows about burying gas pipes.

Utilities also wouldn’t have to worry about long-term costs such as repairing lines damaged in storms or tree trimming, which are savings Barnett thinks will help the city negotiate in future projects.

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