Longboat’s underground movement starts soon

Editor & Publisher

Undergrounding the utilities on the entirety of Longboat Key is the largest Public Works project Town Hall has undertaken.

Residents will soon witness the first signs of actual work when, according to Public Works Director Isaac Brownman, crews begin the process of trenching and burying power lines on the southernmost portion of Longboat Key.

But before that work begins, one critical decision must be made by the Town Commission: What will be the height of the future street light poles?

That decision is predicated in part on the Town-wide small cell wireless system the Town and its private partner, Waterleaf, plan to build in order to enhance wireless cellular reception.

In May, Waterleaf will have finished and the Town will hear the results of an analysis that will determine if 25-foot poles on Gulf of Mexico Drive and 15-foot poles in the neighborhoods are high enough to allow a system to not only operate but be financially feasible.

Waterleaf is also evaluating the effectiveness of 35-foot poles on Gulf of Mexico Drive and 25-foot poles in the neighborhoods as another option.

The Commission has made clear, as has the community, that it prefers the lower light poles for aesthetic reasons. The catch is that the taller poles transmit the cellular signals more effectively and at a greater distance and therefore less are required.

Brownman says that the design for the fiber backbone that is being installed in the trenches along with the power lines cannot be finalized until the pole height decision is made. The nature of the partnership with Waterleaf is that the town is paying for the light poles and Waterleaf is paying for the cost of the small cell wireless technology and any additional poles beyond the light poles that are needed to create a seamless and viable system.

Brownman says that when voters approved the nearly $50 million in bonds it is for undergrounding the utilities and the fiber optic backbone and installing the street lights. The private partner, Waterleaf, is in the business of building out the wireless infrastructure that will piggyback off of the fiber optic cable laid by the town.

The goal of the Town is to enhance cell phone coverage especially on the north end, and to have the system in place when 5G technology is rolled out in the region.

Town Manager Tom Harmer said that if the Town does not have a wireless infrastructure in place, it could be vulnerable to any wireless service requesting to place poles and infrastructure in right-of-ways and the Town would have a hard time restricting such a measure under Federal telecommunication law.

Waterleaf intends to sell location rights and usage rights to several carriers on the anticipated town-wide system.

“The advantage of having our own system is we can encourage telecommunications providers to use our poles,” said Brownman.

Street-side action

The first phase of the undergrounding will begin at the very south end of the Key at the Longboat Key Club entrance and power cable lines will be buried heading north to the vicinity of Putter Lane.

The second phase will occur at the very northern end of Longboat Key along Gulf of Mexico Drive. Brownman made it clear that all of the existing power poles will remain until after the project is completed and it will be Florida Power and Light, not the Town’s undergrounding contractor, that will remove them.

The whole project will take about 39 months, says Brownman, and the commencement should be in late May or early June.

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