Going underground can be challenging for everyone from cave explorers to coal miners, and it also represents a costly proposition in downtown Mount Airy where moving electrical lines underground is concerned.
The price tag easily tops $500,000, the Board of Commissioners and other city officials were told during their annual planning retreat late last week.
Of that, the two costliest elements would include digging an 18-inch trench along Main Street from Rawley Avenue to Cherry Street (estimated at $390,000) and putting the lines underground at existing streetlight fixtures, numbering about 30. That expense would be around $188,000, based on a charge of $6,269 per pole.
Other costs likely would emerge, according to representatives of Duke Energy, which would handle the project.
“There’s a lot of things to consider still yet,” Jimmy Flythe, director of government and community relations for Duke Energy’s West Region, told city officials.
They have discussed the possibility of underground utility lines for several years to eliminate unsightly clusters of overhead ones, but always have shied away because of costs.
They decided to explore the subject again during this year’s planning retreat, but despite the numbers cited, Mayor David Rowe, for one, did not seem deterred.
“Cheaper than I thought,” was his reaction to the costs outlined when asked about the matter during a break.
“I suspect in the long run it would be increased light with decreased prices,” he said of plans that would include a shift to energy-efficient LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs.
“It would probably save us money in the long run,” Rowe added.
The difference in modern LED lighting compared to the traditional mercury vapor and high-pressure sodium lights that have been used in Mount Airy over the years is night and day, according to Tom Grantham, another Duke Energy representative who spoke.
“The visibility is often four times better than high-pressure sodium,” said Grantham, who outlined the technical effects involved with a switchover.
Mount Airy’s present lighting configuration downtown dates to the 1960s, “back when Andy (Griffith) was alive instead of the reruns,” Grantham said.
He showed before-and-after images of places such as Charlotte where such projects have been undertaken, with a more even, pinpoint light distribution apparent in addition to increased visibility.
“We’re into doing streetscapes,” Grantham said of lighting projects undertaken by Duke Energy in various cities.
“The energy component of our rates as they are now is very small,” he said, adding that the main cost is the equipment involved.
That could include attractive aluminum poles installed in concrete bases for overhead streetlights, as well as pedestrian-level lighting. An array of decorative teardrop, traditional and other lighting fixture choices are available, based on Grantham’s presentation.
The Department of Transportation prescribes lighting levels for streets using factors such as the speed limit. Duke Energy would design a lighting system based on that level and other choices at no charge.
“What we offer is a lighting service,” Grantham said.
Digging a trench in the pavement to install the power lines would be an alternative to tearing up sidewalks, the Duke Energy representatives said, which also poses difficulties due to obstacles such as water lines.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley pointed out that the drilling might be complicated further by the presence of granite, a frequent nemesis of such projects. Brinkley recalled that the placement of the present poles in the downtown area years ago required dynamite.
Brinkley, who has knowledge of electrical operations due to an association with Pike Corp., directed the most questions to the Duke Energy representatives at the retreat, with Commissioner Steve Yokeley also tossing out a cost-related query.
“Are there any grants out there to help a city go to better lighting?” he asked them.
“Not through Duke Energy,” Flythe replied.
He suggested that one good initial step by Mount Airy officials would be budgeting money for an engineering study for the system, a $5,000 expense.
“That engineering study is very important,” said Grantham.
Although Mayor Rowe reacted favorably to the Duke Energy presentation, the commissioners gave no indication of any action they might take regarding the lines.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.