It should be clear skies over Stowe by Thanksgiving, as workers race to wrap up a $3 million project to bury all of the village’s utility lines.
According to Harry Shepard, the town’s public works director, the final switchover is scheduled for one minute after midnight on either Nov. 10, 11 or 12, depending on favorable conditions.
“I think it’s going to transform Main Street,” Shepard said. “It’s less cluttered, more beautiful and brings out the charm of the downtown.”
The one remaining wire is still running from pole to pole along Main Street is owned by Vermont Telephone Company, but it’s fiber optic cable and some of those fibers are rented by other providers.
“There’s still a lot going on in that one cable,” Shepard said.
The selectboard will hold a virtual ribbon cutting on Zoom Nov. 23, including a video with comments from various municipal officials and town leaders.
That’s nothing compared to what has been going on under Main Street over the past two construction seasons. Construction crews had to build a new underground system — a primary artery and side routes to all of the various customers. Before a wire could come down, every customer had to hook up to the new underground line and then have the company switch them over from the old one.
Most of that underground work was done last year, leaving this summer to finish work above-ground. COVID-19 added some challenges to that, especially early in the pandemic, when there were more restrictions on construction workers.
“One of the realities of civil engineering is, often times, it’s done either underground or behind walls,” Shepard said.
Two years ago, on Election Day 2018, Stowe voters passed a pair of municipal bonds to pay for village infrastructure improvements. One was a sum of $3.4 million to replace the village sidewalks, cobblestone walkways that had been deemed hazardous and lacking in ADA accessibility.
The other was $3.2 million to bury the power lines. This project was seen as more aesthetic than practical, but the bond vote was still handily approved, 1,713-866, on the same day as a highly active mid-term election.
The two projects were tied; if the sidewalk bond didn’t pass, the power line project was sunk. But, the sidewalk bond passed by a 4-1 margin.
Sidewalk replacement was all done last year, about 15,000 feet of construction from roughly Cemetery Road to Sylvan Woods Road. The cobblestones were replaced by smooth concrete, and the project added large, granite-accented “bump-outs” at the crosswalks, to give pedestrians better sight-lines without having to step into traffic.
Both bonds will be paid off in 30 years, the sidewalks from local property taxes, the utility lines from Stowe’s 1 percent local option tax on sales of hotel rooms, meals and alcohol. That local option tax, which pays for more town infrastructure improvements, has taken a huge hit during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the utility line burial project was largely based on aesthetics, enough voters believe such visual appeal is necessary in one of Vermont’s most popular tourist towns. Rev. Will Vaus, then-pastor of the Stowe Community Church, said to get a clear photo of the famed steeple, a photographer would have to stand in the middle of the road to avoid the wires. That church is among the most photographed in the world, according to USA Today.
“A lot of them are idyllic and the power lines are airbrushed out,” Vaus said.