York County Council approved a new utility relocation policy outlining who pays what when it comes to Pennies 4. The policy is largely similar to what was done with past Pennies campaigns.
Only now it’s official. And, council members hope, it has teeth.
“I think utilities are going to do the right thing,” said Councilman Michael Johnson. “I really do. But when they don’t, I want them to he held accountable.”
A variety of utilities — water and sewer lines, cable, electricity — have to be moved when a road project breaks ground. Past Pennies campaigns didn’t always account for the full cost of utility relocation until well into the road design process. Surprises caused delays. Delays caused missed completion dates and increased costs.
This time the county reached out to utilities in advance to get the best available estimates for planned projects. Pennies staff and elected leaders are more confident the result will be more precise cost estimates and fewer surprises.
“We feel like we have a better handle on them,” said Patrick Hamilton, program director for Pennies.
Pennies for Progress, a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax used to fund road projects in York County, began in 1997. Each tax runs seven years. A vote Nov. 7 on the next round of projects will be the fourth for the county.
Hamilton projects $26 million to $28 million of the money from Pennies 4 — about 10 percent — could go to utility relocation costs. The share would, by percentage, be less than past campaigns. Actual costs won’t be known until the projects are designed.
“There’s much more resurfacing and much more intersection projects, versus the large projects,” Hamilton said of Pennies 4. “There were more large projects on Pennies 3 which you typically have a higher utility relocation cost.”
In practice, the new policy doesn’t bring drastic changes.
“If it’s something that we’re requiring, of course we’re going to pay for it,” Hamilton said.
If a utility chooses an upgrade, like burying a service line when an overhead would do, the difference in cost would fall to the utility.
“It’s essentially the same policy as on Pennies 3, in that we’re paying for all utilities regardless of prior rights,” Hamilton said. “If it’s a betterment or an upgrade it’s on the utility provider to pay for that unless it’s a cost savings to the county.”
That can happen.
Hamilton cites one case where upgrading an underground copper line to fiberoptic saved about $300,000. In such a scenario, the county would pay.
“It’s basically just some common sense stuff,” said Councilman Chad Williams.
One change the county didn’t choose involved prior rights. A citizen group formed to review past Pennies results gave a variety of proposals for improvement. One, Lake Wylie resident and group member Billy Hagner said, involved the prior rights issue.
That means any situation where a utility has existing infrastructure, the county would pay for improvements. Anything new, the utility would pay.
Hagner said the council “kind of took the political route, rather than the most economical one” in keeping with how it operated previously.
County leaders know from experience how important utilities can be to the timing and cost of projects, as are many factors they want to improve if voters approve Pennies 4 in November.
“We are learning from our mistakes,” Roddey said.
Johnson said a nightmare scenario is utilities, for whatever reason, stop working as closely with the county as they are now. The new policy does stipulate in extreme cases of a utility holding up a project, the county could put the cost on the utility. He wants that part of the policy understood.
“If a utility refuses to assist the county in finding where those utilities are located, that we will enact in part of the policy and potentially fine them and punish them for refusing to assist us,” Johnson said.
Chairman Britt Blackwell said he is pleased to hear how well the county and utilities are working ahead of project scoping, planning and designing. He just wants to see it continue.
“Knowing the history of all these things that have occurred, there’s a little bit of concern about trusting what the utility companies are saying and doing,” Blackwell said.
Williams said the last part of the policy, the one concerning extreme cases, shouldn’t read as the county looking to get out of payments on a regular basis.
“Our goal is to actually never exercise that,” he said. “But the policy we have now has no fallback in it when it is clearly the fault of the utility.”
Johnson said the county isn’t asking too much of utilities. Only for information to make the best decisions on a project before construction begins.
“We’re asking you to be a part of this process,” he said.
The relocation policy approved is specific to Pennies 4. While Pennies is the biggest road program, York County routinely works with other road plans and projects.
In May, the county began a thoroughfare plan.
“The plan will identify areas for future road connections and improvements,” said Bill Shanahan, county manager. “By identifying these corridors the county will be better able to identify areas for preservation and future right-of-way.”
The county is gathering data now, and will reach out to council members for by-district needs. The county also is working with the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study on a collector road project from that federally-funded group.
“This is a regional equivalent to our thoroughfare plan,” Shanahan said.
A presentation should come to RFATS in the next couple of months.