An ambitious plan to remove most of the overhead wires from Steuben Street, the heart of Bingen's downtown business district, is moving forward quickly.
In a surprise move, however, the Bingen City Council has voted unanimously to cover the full cost of the project, with no billing of local building owners.
The July 2 vote means that the utility wires for electricity, telephone, and cable television service -- currently strung overhead -- will be routed underground, with the city paying the estimated $141,000 price tag.
In previous council meetings, the question had been what portion of the cost the city would cover.
The area of Steuben Street (State Route 14) to be affected by the project will go from Willow Street to Maple Street, a five-block stretch.
In addition, most of the overhead wires on Depot Street will come down.
"All buildings on the north side of Steuben will be fed from Humboldt overhead," explained Mayor Brian Prigel. "All buildings on the south side will be fed underground from Depot Street."
The undergrounding project is one aspect of a major downtown revitalization plan, which includes the upcoming repaving of State Route 14 through downtown Bingen, the new fire hall, new landscaping, and long-range planning for development of Depot Street, one block south of Steuben.
Removal of the overhead wires is designed to create a more attractive and inviting downtown area.
In considering the impacts of the upgrading, Prigel said he recognized the economic constraints many Bingen businesses were currently facing.
"I believe it would be right for building owners to pick up part of the tab for this utility project," Prigel explained. "But in a practical sense, it would be very difficult to ask building owners to contribute much to this. If we're going to do this, we need to foot the bill."
Prigel noted that the costs for the necessary utility work differed widely from building to building, and that in itself created an inequity.
Prigel said the money for the undergrounding work would come from the city's long-standing community development fund, which was originally known as the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). The city has tapped into the fund in recent years in an effort to enhance the city.
The fund reached a high of approximately $2.7 million in 1999. If the city takes the cost of this new project out of the community development fund, the account will have approximately $750,000-$800,000 remaining in it.
"It seems scary to say we're spending $2 million plus," said Laura Mann. "But that's what the money is for."
Prigel said the money has gone to pay for substantial enrichments to the city.
"If you look at what we've accomplished so far with those funds, there have been some pretty significant uses," he said. "This [undergrounding] project could help the city even more than a community center, and hopefully it will stimulate a bit more private investment."
Projects the city has taken on in the past three years, funded in total or in part from the UDAG fund, include:
Construction of a new fire station;
Water system improvements, including a new 180,000-gallon water reservoir;
Purchase of the lot at 400 W. Steuben as a potential site for a new community center/city hall;
Purchase of playground equipment for Daubenspeck Park;
Design of downtown revitalization plans;
A Dry Creek's flooding study;
Purchase of Depot Street for future development.
Prigel said he thought it was important to maintain the recent momentum.
Jan Brending, Bingen's city clerk, pointed out that movement of utilities achieves one of the goals of downtown revitalization, and as a result can be considered economic development.
"I agree," Prigel said. "It's actually getting pretty sparse downtown. I'd like to see more retail businesses come down. With downtown revitalization, it needs to be carried through and do it right. This project would certainly help the community."
Norm Guler, owner of Guler Oil at the east end of Bingen's downtown area, told the council that businesses were already stressed, and were likely to suffer further during the highway paving project.
"Businesses are going to be impacted quite a bit anyway with everything torn up," Guler said. "Business will be down, so if we don't have to cough up $6,000 to put the utilities underground, we'd certainly appreciate it."
Councilor Mann recommended that the city pick up the charges for the utility undergrounding project.
"It would be hard for the city to say, you have to do this, do it this way, do it now, and you have to pay for it. That wouldn't be fair," Mann said.
For its part, the Klickitat Public Utility District has agreed to pay $32,000. That amount represents what the PUD would have to pay to move power poles during the SR 14 construction project, regardless of where the wires ultimately go. However, the PUD's contribution is already figured in, and would not lower the cost to Bingen.
"The cost to the city of Bingen for the PUD to move the electrical lines to underground on Depot Street is $141,456. This does not include the amount the PUD will pick up, which is approximately $32,000. At the present time, the city is not pursuing burying the SDS feeder along Maple Street, or undergrounding the lines on Oak Street," read a statement from the city.
Prigel said the city would advise the Public Utility District of the decision, and the work contract would soon go out to bid.
"I'd like to see this project all done by the end of September," Prigel said.
Council member Terry Trantow requested that the utility companies provide schematics to the city, so there will be an accurate record of where the utilities are located.
"We need to require as-builts, so we know where their utilities are," Trantow explained.
Leaco Electric developed the cost estimates for the city.