County Reaches Compromise on Hill 71 Project
After a multi-hour discussion — at times heated and punctuated when one of the telephone participants suffered a heart attack — Hinsdale County Commissioners navigated an impasse allowing partial installation of conduit for broadband fiber cable on the route to the Hill 71 communications site.
As reported in last week’s edition, Hinsdale Commissioners are at odds with recommendations by the volunteer Citizens for Hinsdale County Broadband committee on broadband installation to Hill 71 as a result of tight installation timing this fall and lack of funding.
Broadband committee members Richard Hewitt and Van Evans were on conference call at a special meeting of the county commissioners on Tuesday morning this week, Hinsdale Commissioners Whinnery, Thompson and Dozier in attendance at the meeting and joined on the phone by county attorney Michael O’Loughlin, and an attentive audience.
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In the midst of a verbal wrangle over Hinsdale County’s reluctance to share contractual documents with the committee pertaining to the planned electric line installation by Hinsdale County and Gunnison County Electric, the phone connection with Evans at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, abruptly ended at 10:30 a.m. without explanation.
It was later learned that Evans had suffered a heart attack and was transported to Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque where he underwent heart catharization and a stint was installed.
According to Evans’ wife, Lake City native Pamela Weems Evans, he was “resting as well as one can in CCU [Cardiac Care Unit],” as of Wednesday morning.
Others attending Tuesday morning’s special meeting on broadband installation with the commissioners were Roger Grogg and Mike McBride, respectively Chief Operating Officer and Chief Executive Officer for Gunnison County Electric Association, along with Tom Carl who is Lake City and the Lake Fork Valley’s representative on the electric co-op board.
Others attending the meeting on behalf of Colorado Dept. of Transportation were Joel Berschauer, Region 3 Utility and Special Permit Coordinator, and BLM realty specialist Marnie Medina. T-Mobile leases a portion of the Hill 71 communications site from Hinsdale County and was represented at Tuesday’s meeting by Chris Stryker.
Stryker referred to the extreme importance of timeliness in the looming county-sponsored power installation project.
Stryker told the commissioners, “power is our main concern,” noting that the cellular firm first based its use of the Hill 71 site on solar power and now looks to commercial power. “Time is of the essence,” he said in terms of the switch to commercial power.
County Commissioner Susan Thompson opened Tuesday’s special meeting by stating that its purpose was to “move forward with our project… we wanted to get everyone together on real costs.”
Tom Carl noted that discussions on subsurface electric line installation to power communications equipment at the Hill 71 communications site has been ongoing for four years or more. The lack of electric power to the high elevation site has been exacerbated the past several winters by on-again, off-again operations of the site’s solar panels and back-up phalanx of batteries and diesel generator. Operations of both the solar panels and back-up batteries and generator have become increasingly temperamental in recent years, necessitating an emergency convoy of snowcats to the site in January, 2017, to deliver new batteries.
With the prospect of a power failure which would result in a loss of emergency communications at the site, Hinsdale County Road & Bridge staff made near-daily treks to the communications site last winter delivering diesel and making repairs to the backup generator.
Frequent breakdowns and the potential for a complete loss of power to the site prompted the exasperated county board to secure a $375,000 Colorado Dept. of Local Affairs grant to install seven miles of underground electric cable to the site. Gunnison County Electric is in process of contracting with the county for the installation and, as explained at Tuesday’s meeting, will retain ownership of the line with responsibility for long-term repairs and eventual replacement as needed.
Additional financial backing for the envisioned electric line installation comes with a $150,000 cash match by Hinsdale County and — integral to the project — upwards of $100,000 in in-kind services which will be rendered by staff and machinery at Hinsdale County Road & Bridge Dept.
The seven-mile route for the electric line starts at the end of existing electric power near Inn at the Lake, the old Golconda Resort, adjacent to Slumgullion Gulch on the lower toe of Slumgullion Slide at Lake San Cristobal. From this location, trenching will take place up through Slumgullion Slide following an old wagon road to its intersection with State Highway 149 on Slumgullion Pass. The electric line installation then follows along the Highway 149 right of way for 3,100-feet until reaching the 4-wheel Sawmill Park Road.
Trenching then works its way up through the center of the Sawmill Park Road until reaching Hill 71.
In addition to trenching — actually not so much a trench as simply ripping or breaking up the ground surface to a 4’ depth — the project includes two expensive and lengthy bores beneath the paved surface of Highway 149, the first of which is at the juncture of the old wagon road to bring the electric cable underneath the pavement and to the uphill right side of the highway.
The second and most expensive bore is just before the sharp hairpin Lake Overlook curve on Slumgullion Pass. A 411’ uphill bore eliminates the sharp curve and avoids a strata of solid rock which would have complicated the trenching process.
The cost of the single 411’ bore is anticipated in the range of $40,000.
A series of draft contracts for the line installation have been discussed and reviewed by Hinsdale County and Gunnison County Electric since last fall, with tentative contracting signing and start of work first planned in late July and then pushed back to mid-August.
In the interval, volunteer members of the Citizens for Hinsdale County Broadband (CHCB), principals of which are Van Evans and Richard Hewitt, aided by Nancy Zeller and others, have strenuously urged the county to co-install broadband cable at the same time electric cable is being strung.
As detailed in an at-times contentious meeting between CHCH and the county on August 1, Gunnison County Electric as a cost-saving option suggested that broadband fiber could be installed at the same time utilizing a separate contractor.
CHCB obtained Phase I co-installation cost estimates of $287,000 for installation of the broadband cable in conduit over the seven-mile stretch, or a more barebones cost of $130,000 for ditching and installation of empty conduit, with subsequent phases of the broadband proposal being to add cable to the conduit and, eventually, subsequent phases of the proposal including extending the cable to Lake City and extending broadband capabilities to other areas of the county.
As an added incentive to the county, CHCB raised pledges of $65,000 toward the broadband installation project and was encouraged with the potential for future grant funding.
Much of the early portion of this week’s special county meeting on Tuesday touched on the uncertainties and financial liabilities of meshing tight installation schedules for both electric and broadband installation prior to the arrival of inclement weather later this fall.
For just electric line install, Gunnison County Electric is estimating two weeks — laying 2,300’ feet of cable each day — from start to finish, although the electric co-op states that unforeseen complications could extend total installation to a month or six weeks.
The rub is that the Cortez, Colorado, contractor contacted by Citizens of Hinsdale County Broadband is basing his cost estimates on a two-week project, after which there would be a $2,000 per-day overage charge.
Hinsdale Commissioners repeatedly asked CHCB committee members where the money for installation and the likelihood of cost overruns would come from.
For their part, CHCB’s Evans and Hewitt repeatedly challenged that the county had intentionally withheld vital information from them during their deliberations, key of which was the complete lack of sharing copies of draft contracts worked out by legal counsel for both the county and GCEA citing unknown contingencies.
County reiterated that a final contract for the electric line installation between the county and GCEA is still in draft stage, with final details still being worked out. Contingency costs, according to the county, will remain an unknown factor based on a variety of circumstances, including the extent of rockwork which is excavated as the earth is broken up for the line installation.
The Hinsdale-GCEA contract, draft document, according to O’Loughlin, is not finalized and, owing to confidentiality, is not open to the public.
Hinsdale Commissioners acknowledged that when discussions on the electric line installation evolved, broadband cable installation was also initially planned. Broadband was later dropped from the project, according to Commissioner Whinnery after taking the broadband cost component into consideration.
“No one wants broadband installed more than I do,” he declared. “But we decided that we could not get it accomplished within our budget.”
“We didn’t have enough horse-power,” he reiterated. “I want to do it, it’s just that we don’t have the money to make it happen.”
With both sides clearly exasperated, CHCB member Hewitt referred to committee members’ shock, just days after their August 1 report to the county, when Commissioner Whinnery announced that the cost for co-installation of broadband fiber had increased $150,000 based on a $2.50 per foot surcharge by GCEA.
The $150,000 added broadband cost was later rescinded, however, based on GCEA’s desire not to hinder the project and, according to GCEA CEO Mike McBride, as long as it is clearly understood that GCEA is not responsible for aspects of the broadband installation, specifically installation of the pedestals which connect the broadband cable
Pedestals — properly known as “pull boxes” for the electric cable and “cabinets” for the broadband cable — are interspersed at junctions at approximate 2,300’ distance along the route.
Marnie Medina for the BLM and Colorado Dept. of Transportation’s Joel Berschauer took part intermittently in Tuesday morning’s county discission, both government representatives assuring the county commissioners that the addition of broadband to the project would not unduly extend the time or cost in terms of mandatory permitting. Medina said that an amended application adding broadband to BLM right-of-way application could be “turned around in a day” with an added cost of approximately $500.
CDOT’s Berschauer mirrored Medina is stating that the addition of broadband cable with electric would not complicate the project in terms of the county’s permitting with the highway dept. for use of its right-of-way. He stated that the highway department requires a depth of 90”, and as little as 36”, and stated that the trenching should not occur within the flow-line of the roadside ditch, preference stated for the lociation to be either closer to the pavement or out of the ditch bottom on the slope above.
It was Berschauer who made the initial compromise suggestion which, after several hours discussion, was ultimately adopted by the county board.
“I don’t care what you guys put in our right-of-way and, if you’re already there, why don’t you put in the extra conduit now rather than coming back at a later date?” Rather than terminating the broadband option purely because of timing and finances now, Berschauer suggested putting in at least a portion of the components — such as empty conduit to receive fiber at a later date — now rather than returning at a later date when permitting and escalating costs will be replicated. He particularly mentioned the advisability that when expensive boring beneath the Highway 149 asphalt is done, it would be more cost expedient to install electric line in conduit and empty conduit for future broadband fiber cable .
Hinsdale County Commissioner Whinnery enthusiastically embraced this concept of partial installation of empty broadband conduit. He suggested installing the empty conduit just along the Highway 149 right-of-way, including allowing for future broadband cable in the two bores which will take place beneath the highway.
This concept, as proposed by Whinnery and taken up by Commissioners Thompson and Dozier, would allow the county-GCEA contract to proceed and allow for work to begin almost immediately after the contract is signed.
Installation of the empty broadband conduit, and five broadband cabinet pedestals, along Highway 149 will be jointly installed in partnership by the county and GCEA and will fit into a hopefully maximum-six-week project during which electric cable is installed in conduit for the entire seven mile section from Lake San Cristobal up to the Hill 71 communications site.
A measurable sigh of relief was evident from both commissioners and those attending the meeting, including Citizens for Hinsdale County Broadband’s Richard Hewitt, albeit fellow committee member Van Evans was no longer in attendance. Asked for his opinion on the compromise alternative, Hewitt told the commissioners “it’s your call.”
“Our goal is to get fiber optic up there and to be cognizant of the economic ramifications of broadband installation. Every step along the way is very positive,” he said.
County attorney O’Loughlin was instructed to modify the GCEA contract with reference to county installation of empty broadband conduit along the 3,100’ of the Highway 149 right-of-way and the installation of up to five cabinet junction boxes in close proximity to electric line pedestals adjacent to the highway. O’Loughlin will also check with Colorado Dept. of Local Affairs to ascertain that the $375,000 grant funding may be utilized in part of joint electric-broadband installation along the Highway 149 right-of-way.
$5,000 is the anticipated expense to the county for the 3,100’ feet of broadband conduit, although there was some discussion as to whether the conduit’s interior dimension should be 1-1/2” or 1-1/4”. For his part, Hewitt stated that 1-1/2” interior dimension conduit was preferable since it would accept 96-strand fiber while 1-1/4” would have reduced capability.
Commissioners asked Hewitt to obtain price estimates for the requisite conduit and five pedestals.
“That sounds fine,” said Hewitt on behalf of the CHCB group, “we’re ready, willing and capable” to assist. Hewitt ended the meeting by once again asking for copies of all pertinent documents and information. “Then we’ll move ahead,” he said, “we want to achieve our goal.”
Visibly expressing relief, county board chairperson Thompson noted “we have a plan and we’re moving forward.” Fellow commissioner member Dozier concurred, “we’ve reached an awesome compromise.” Dozier added that she felt comfortable with the project timeline.
“I feel good about it now,” she cautioned, “but I may not be saying that in six weeks when the weather turns really terrible.”
It is hoped that the county-GCEA contract will be finalized by the end of this week, after which GCEA will be given the go ahead to order materials and the start of work will be scheduled.
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