Sunday, January 4, 2015

Cape needs Universal Utility Plan

National Grid’s action in December, 2014 to disallow any new gas service hook ups on parts of Cape Cod due to gas main limitations is a symptom of a broader problem – the lack of comprehensive utility and infrastructure planning on Cape Cod.   Regional Universal Utility Planning should be established as a major goal of the Cape Cod Regional Policy Plan.

Robert Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and say why.  I dream things that never were and say why not?”  Take a moment to dream of a day 20 years in the future.  In that dream there is a Universal Utility Plan in place that has finished its first major goal:

A prefabricated concrete modular utility hosting system has been placed the full length of Route 6A from Bourne to Orleans.  The system hosts piping for sewer water to a water treatment system, gas main, water supply, electrical power, telecommunications, and spare conduit for future uses.   A ten foot wide concrete cover serves a dual purpose of both easy maintenance access and as a bike path the length of Route 6A.  Unsightly telephone poles are gone.  Sidewalks are gone. Winter storms and hurricanes no longer paralyze the region with power outages.  Patents, leadership, and construction bring jobs.

Such a dream is achievable.  It will require some to relinquish full control of their piece of the utility or right-of-way pie.  It will require a great deal of engineering to ensure proper vertical and horizontal separations are achieved within the modular utility hosting system.   It will take time, but can largely be achieved in 50 years.

The engineering and construction is always the easy part.  The relinquishing of control and funding is always the hard part.

The centerpiece of a Universal Utility Plan is coordinated capital improvement.   Presently a variety of largely independent entities make decisions about when and where capital improvements will be made (or just as important in the NGRID case not made) to vital infrastructure.  The first thing a town may know about such an improvement is when a permit is pulled.

A waste water authority will plan to open the road to place sewer pipe; a fire/water district will plan to place a larger water main; a federal grant will be received for a town to replace sidewalks;  Mass Highway will decide to reconstruct an intersection (or clear cut a highway); NSTAR and/or Verizon decide to replace poles due to aging (some poles on Cape were placed in 1935) or increased weight requirements; and on and on.

Each of these entities, and many others like the Army Corps and National Park Service, take independent action that effects other critical infrastructure.   Roads are opened, closed, and reopened in each of these events.  Traffic is affected.  Roadways deteriorate faster as the patches heave and settle with the winter cycle.

Successful Universal Utility Planning requires bringing right-of-way owners together to create an aggregated right-of-way that leases rights to utility stake holders through a Universal Utility Authority for the purpose of coordinating new road construction, upgrade, and replacement, and simultaneous construction, upgrade, and replacement of utility services.

Coordinating capital improvements will reduce costs overall for all parties by sharing the most expensive parts of placing utilities and maintenance.  Repair costs will go down for all with a modular system.

In the past year independent utilities and right-of-way owners have acted without coordination or even consideration of the needs of the residents of Cape Cod. It is time to stop reacting to that lack of consideration and the crises that result and dream a little.

Universal Utility Planning is the direction Cape Cod should move.   The community should force the alignment of capital improvement plans by all stake holders and right-of-way owners into a coordinated single plan that over time transforms the road and utility infrastructure of the region.

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