Palm Beach Post
By William Kelly – Daily News Staff Writer
With costs threatening to exceed $90 million, Palm Beach may hire a second engineering firm to review a plan for burying all power, cable television and phone lines on the island.
The Underground Utilities Task Force recommended Tuesday that the Town Council hire a consultant to “peer review” the master plan completed in January by engineering consultant Kimley-Horn & Associates. The review, expected to cost $50,000 to $100,000, would look for ways to cut expenses. The council will consider the recommendation on Tuesday.
In a referendum last March, voters narrowly approved up to $90 million in bonds to finance the utility conversion. The $90 million was based on the town’s original cost estimate plus a 20 percent contingency.
Kimley-Horn’s analysis revised the estimate upward by around $30 million. Town officials and Kimley-Horn worked together on a revised plan that comes in under $99 million. Meanwhile, Kimley-Horn has asked the three utility companies, AT&T, Comcast and Florida Power and Light, to help find less expensive ways to accomplish the underground conversion.
Task force members said they weren’t opposed to the review as long as it doesn’t slow down the project, which is set to begin in mid-June and take around 10 years to complete.
Member Donald Gulbrandsen said a peer review would be “a cost and a distraction” that may not be necessary from an engineering standpoint. But he said it might be necessary politically, given unease about the cost.
Town Manager Tom Bradford said the review need not interfere with efforts to get construction started. Phase one, which will be in the far north and south ends of the island, is supposed to begin in mid-June.
“I don’t want it to slow us down at all and I don’t think it will,” Bradford said. “The only concern I have about it is the cost and us having to jump through the [legal or procedural] hurdles we have to” to select a firm.
Ned Barnes, president of the Palm Beach Civic Association, which supports the town-wide utilities burial, said the organization supports a peer review using a consultant with expertise in undergrounding.
“There is a lot of concern out there,” Barnes said. “A lot of people are taking pot shots. … We think [a peer review] will bring a lot of confidence.”
A few years ago, the town hired Woods Hole Group of Massachusetts to peer review its long-term coastal protection plan amid questions and concerns about the cost, Barnes recalled.
“That helped to calm concerns and helped the shore board go forward with the coastal plan. It sort of sidelined all the arguments.”
Barnes said the civic association would contribute to the cost of the review, “maybe 50/50, up to a number, maybe $50,000.”
Besides the peer review recommendation, Bradford said the council will consider three other matters Tuesday related to the undergrounding project.
One is to fill the task force seat vacated by Wilbur Ross, who left to become President Donald Trump’s federal commerce secretary. Another is to consider a selection committee’s recommendations for construction managers for both the north and south segments of phase one. Third, Bradford said there is no money earmarked to pay for phase one of the construction, or the design work for phase two, which is scheduled to happen concurrently with phase one.
The town cannot issue the bonds contemplated under the referendum until the lawsuits filed by two residents over the referendum are resolved. One alternative discussed by the task force is a bank loan to keep the project moving forward until the litigation is over.
Town Attorney John Randolph said the lawsuits are not expected to be resolved by the end of May. No court date has been set.