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Welcome to my blog, which features frequent updates on local Takoma Park issues, including City Council meeting agendas, plus occasional commentary on national news and politics.

Update on Utilities Projects -- June 25, 2019

Introduction. Many Ward One residents have requested an update on where things stand with the Pepco and WSSC projects that have been disrupting our neighborhood for the last year and a half or so. As someone who lives a block away from where much of the current Pepco work is taking place, I often hear loud construction sounds during the day and late night noise from loose metal plates. I also experience the challenging reality that driving to Silver Spring seems to involve a different route virtually every day and to take several times longer than normal. And Philadelphia Avenue, which would normally be an alternate route to and from Silver Spring, has also frequently been blocked or slowed owing to the WSSC project. In both cases, there have also been difficulties connected to the uneven and at time unsafe road surfaces.

So I share the frustration many residents feel about what seem to be endless projects. While the projects are moving forward (you can see information on estimated timetables below), it will unfortunately still be some time before they’re complete. And sadly we’ve seen that municipalities have relatively little ability to influence utilities’ decisions about timing and planning for projects of this sort. In addition, in my opinion the utilities don’t pay enough attention to the concerns of residents, neighborhoods and local officials when the work is actually being done.

With Mayor Stewart and Councilmember Kostiuk (whose Ward has been heavily impacted by the Pepco project) I’ve been pushing for a more responsive, accountable approach from both utilities. We’ve participated in numerous meetings, phone calls and other interactions with Pepco and WSSC representatives, some involving City staff and Washington, DC officials. I regret to say that, while the utilities have often been able to address problems that arise for individual residents, we’ve had at best modest success in our efforts to press them to be more responsive to overall neighborhood concerns. Those concerns include crews working past the normal stop times without advance notice; Pepco working on Saturdays; poor traffic control; not informing residents and City officials when work locations or schedules change; and the two utilities not coordinating well with each other in terms of traffic impacts. Improving communication is key to addressing all of these concerns.

I’ve begun conversations with State legislators to see if we can make progress in next year’s Annapolis legislative session, or in other ways at the State level, on proposals that would enable us to exercise more control over utility work in our community, including ensuring that utilities coordinate better with each other. I’ll also be exploring with my Council colleagues revising our local ordinances and procedures on how utilities operate within our borders in order to help ensure that residents’ quality of life is appropriately respected when projects of this sort are underway. I’ll be having similar talks with Montgomery County officials.

The information below is my best sense of where things stand at the moment, but there remain some uncertain points on which I’m seeking clarification, and the timetables and other details are subject to change in any case, given the nature of construction work, weather impacts, etc. There are also details that can’t be covered in a write-up of this length, so residents should feel free to contact me on any questions or points not covered here, and I’ll try to get answers.

Pepco Project. This project is focused on increasing capacity to meet what Pepco identifies as increased demand, and also to make outages following storms or other emergencies less likely. The work involves establishment of new underground transmission lines from the Takoma Substation on New Hampshire Ave. near Eastern Ave. all the way up Eastern though Old Town, across Piney Branch Ave., along Takoma Ave. and Fenton St. into Silver Spring and eventually across Colesville Rd., ultimately connecting to the Sligo Substation. These transmission lines are separate from distribution lines that run along and off of “telephone poles” to residents’ homes.

At this stage the work involves excavation of side-by-side trenches, each of which will ultimately include a group of 14 cables of varying widths. Finding the right depth and excavating safely (which sometimes involves cutting through granite beds or avoiding unstable areas that may be dangerous for crews), staying away from other utility infrastructure, etc., can take a long time, especially when Pepco generally only actively excavates from roughly 9:00 AM - 3:30 PM. It’s also generally not safe to dig two trenches next to each other at the same time due to unstable soil conditions and narrow street widths. Once the trenches are dug, the cables will be inserted and connected. That phase -- to be finished in 2022 -- hasn’t started yet, though it will be somewhat less disruptive than the excavation work. It will cause relatively minor single lane closures for a few days at a time, as opposed to the longer term complete lane closures we’ve seen with the excavation work.

More details are on the City website:  http://takomaparkmd.gov/initiatives/project-directory/utility-work/ (scroll down to “Underground transmission line Takoma substation to Sligo substation”). For current short-term updates on project details, go to this link: https://publicworks-takomapark.s3.amazonaws.com/public/current-projects/takoma-sligo-underground/PW-20190602-PEPCO-Community-Look-Ahead.pdf. For long term timing see the map in this link:  http://www.pepco.com/SmartEnergy/ReliabilityImprovements/Pages/Takoma-to-Sligo-Underground-Line.aspx.

You’ll note that significant segments of the excavation project through Old Town and in Silver Spring may not be finished until next year. Other Ward One areas, including Eastern near the Metro Station and portions of Takoma Ave. are slated to be done this year. Pepco plans to do a temporary re-paving this year on all the areas where excavation is finished this year. That includes a stretch of about 400 feet along Takoma Avenue where they have not yet excavated the second trench. That excavation work is expected to start up in August, and will take a few months. Unfortunately, that means more road closures, detours, flaggers, etc. in that area.

The final paving won’t be taken care of until after the project is otherwise complete in 2022. But the temporary paving can be helpful, as can be seen where it’s been done along parts of Eastern between Laurel and New Hampshire. Again, if all goes well the temporary paving should be done near the Metro and in North Takoma by the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’ve requested that Pepco make some interim road surface improvements in the parts of Eastern near the Metro and on Takoma where the uneven surfaces can be unsafe especially at night.

I would add that Pepco is supposed to let us know when unplanned circumstances (like unsafe soil, late arriving cement trucks, etc.) require their crews to work past 3:30 or 4:00. That’s not happening as it should, so it’s another point on which I’ll continue pushing. When I spoke to senior Pepco staff yesterday, they agreed that they need to do a better job of communicating with residents and City officials. One of the ideas that came up in our talk was hiring someone to serve as an ombudsman who would have responsibility for being a liaison with the community. I urged them to take this step.

The Pepco contractor is CW & Sons. Their previous contact Rich Ellison, who some residents dealt with on blocked driveways, loose plates, etc., has been temporarily replaced by Jacob Robertson. Residents may contact him with problems or concerns at jrobertson@cwsons.com. For loose plates or other problems you can also call Pepco at any time (even after regular working hours) at 410- 553-8917. Crews have come out in the middle of the night to address loose plate issues. You can also contact City Public Works staff or me..

WSSC Project. This project is less complex than Pepco’s. The water main under Philadelphia Ave., from Maple Ave. up to Montgomery College and into Silver Spring, is being replaced. The water infrastructure in this area is quite old and there have been frequent pipe breakages, including portions of the Philadelphia main itself. Here’s a link to some background:  https://publicworks-takomapark.s3.amazonaws.com/public/projects/Utilty%20work%20public%20notices/PW-20180215-BT5970A15-Community-Presentation.pdf. The excavation work is largely complete up to Chicago Avenue, which is the border of Takoma Park at that edge of the City. The work from Chicago up to Fenton is still underway, with temporary bypass piping in place. Heavy rains have at times slowed this work, but WSSC anticipates finishing that remaining section this year, and also completing the re-paving before the year is up.

The temporary patching of the road surface on already completed areas is causing damaging vibrations for many residents, especially those who live on the downward slope of Philadelphia, where vehicle speeds can be excessive. The shaking is particularly problematic when large vehicles like buses and trucks are involved. I’ve urged WSSC to re-pave the completed sections of Philadelphia as soon as possible, but it’s not entirely clear whether they will do that or wait until the final segment beyond Chicago is complete.

The State Highway Administration also has a role in decisions about the timing for re-paving, since Philadelphia is part of the State Highway system. In addition to urging that the re-paving be done expeditiously, we’ve also asked State Highway to allow City officials and ideally residents to have some say in the re-striping of the roadway, with an eye toward addressing safety concerns connected to excessive speeds on Philadelphia. That request was included in a letter the Council sent to SHA urging action on a number of safety issues raised initially by a group of Philadelphia residents, who developed a petition detailing their concerns that was signed by over 120 people.

While SHA has overall control of Philadelphia, the City was eventually able to get sign-off from SHA to repair the uneven sidewalk along Silver Spring Intermediate Park, across from Montgomery College. The first portion of that repair work has been done, and a separate City re-surfacing contractor will be completing the repairs soon. I’ve urged City staff to press our contractor to move quickly on this.

Residents who have problems or concerns about specific details of the WSSC project can get in touch with Curtis Pinder (301-206-7339; curtis.pinder@wsscwater.com) or Brandon Stewart (301-642-1712); Brandon.stewart@wsscwater.com).

Conclusion. I regret that it hasn’t been possible to bring about a more orderly, neighborhood-friendly approach on the Pepco and WSSC projects, understanding that some level of disruption is hard to avoid. I’ll continue doing all I can to push for greater sensitivity on the part of both companies as the projects continue, and I encourage anyone experiencing problems or concerns connected to the utility work to alert me and to also bring them to the attention of City staff.

Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One

240-319-6281; www.councilmemberkovar.com

Agenda for July 10, 2019 City Council Meeting

June 19, 2019 City Council Meeting Agenda