City of Steamboat: No funds to bury utility lines
Officials say it costs too much to combine work with sewer replacement
March 29, 2011
Steamboat Springs — A lack of funds could mean more underground utility lines in downtown Steamboat Springs are, at least for the moment, just a pipe dream.
Steamboat Springs Public Works Director Philo Shelton said Monday that a fund designated to pay for putting utility lines underground is about $400,000 in the hole,. The shortfall stems from a 2006 project that buried lines in the alley between Lincoln Avenue and Yampa Street, from Fifth to 12th streets.
The alley between Lincoln Avenue and Oak Street, on the other side of Steamboat's main drag, is slated for sewer line replacement this summer. That work will occur between Fourth and 10th streets.
But utility lines in that alley likely will remain aboveground for the foreseeable future.
"We won't have enough funding for years to come," Shelton said.
Tracy Barnett, of Mainstreet Steamboat Springs, said the downtown advocacy group's design committee, however, has discussed potential improvements to city alleys. In light of this summer's sewer work, the alley between Lincoln and Oak has been a focal point.
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"We want to fix up the alleys and make them more pedestrian-friendly. The design committee has some great ideas that they would like to do," Barnett said. "I think we can do some pretty amazing things."
Barnett acknowledged the city's financial challenges and said alley improvements should happen only if funds are available. Other supporters of alley improvements could not be reached Monday.
But a recent Mainstreet design committee meeting spurred the circulation of emails among downtown business owners and Steamboat civic leaders about the potential merits of underground utility lines.
The reason such a project is unlikely, however, relates to electric bills and city spending.
Every Yampa Valley Electric Association customer within Steamboat's city limits pays a 4 percent franchise fee on each bill. YVEA remits those revenues to the city quarterly. Shelton said that since 1999, 1 percent of that franchise fee has been allocated to an "undergrounding fund" for projects to bury utility lines.
Revenues for the undergrounding fund have risen throughout the years and reached nearly $193,000 in 2010, Shelton said after consulting with city finance staff. The 1 percent fee has generated a total of about $1.6 million since its inception. The undergrounding fund grew to nearly $1.7 million, Shelton said, with additional revenue including private donations.
But those dollars are long gone.
"The undergrounding fund has overspent that amount, and that was mostly due from the undergrounding of the alley between Lincoln and Yampa," Shelton said. "With all the redevelopment there, it was a good time to get it done."
The Lincoln-Yampa alley project was primarily completed in 2006 and cost about $2.1 million to put utility lines underground for a seven-block stretch.
Shelton said the $400,000 difference — between $2.1 million and $1.7 million — came from the city's capital improvements fund. That fund uses tax revenues related to new development and is increasingly burdened by shrinking reserves and budgetary demands on several fronts.
"It used to be a healthy source of funding until building construction halted to a standstill," Shelton said. "It's a very small source of money now."
Shelton said the city is preparing to solicit bids for this summer's sewer and storm line work in the alley between Lincoln Avenue and Oak Street. The city's 2011 budget allocates more than $1.3 million from its wastewater fund for the project. Shelton said work could start as early as May.
Shelton said adding buried utility lines onto that project would cost about $3 million. Adding just conduits, to help with future utility line burial, would cost more than $1.5 million, he said.
Shelton indicated that a more likely scenario could be burying utility lines when the alley's asphalt is next replaced in more than a decade or two.
He said the alley between Lincoln and Oak will be repaved in summer as a result of the sewer line and storm line work, with a final overlay in 2012.
Barnett said that alley could use repaving.
"You could fall in one of those potholes and be lost forever," she said.
Shelton said he and utilities engineer Jon Snyder have begun meeting with downtown business owners about potential impacts from summer's sewer replacement. Shelton said the project should be a different beast than the massive Lincoln Avenue repaving work last year.
"We're only going to allow them to disturb two blocks at a time and then they have to put it back together," Shelton said about the sewer work. "It's not going to be open end-to-end like last year."
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or email mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com