Longboat bores its way into the future with $50 million project

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The $49 million project to underground every electrical line on Longboat Key is well underway.

The most visible signs of the progress can be seen on the west side of Gulf of Mexico Drive along the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s Islandside Golf Course. Crews have been engaged in directional boring and the insertion of conduit in which the future power lines are being inserted.

The work in the ground began about three months ago and will take no more than 1,200 days to complete, which is the length of the contract.

The town will also bury a fiber optic network that will run the entire length of the island and to each condominium and single-family residence.

Voters approved two separate bond referendums to fund the projects. The first referendum pays for undergrounding the power lines of Gulf of Mexico Drive, the fiber optic along Gulf of Mexico Drive as well as the installation of new light poles along the state roadway.

The second referendum pays for the same components but is earmarked for the residential neighborhoods that are located on the streets emanating from Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Residents should not experience many impacts from the project because the entire system will be built out and then essentially the power will be switched from the existing overhead lines to the future underground grid.


Lighting the way

Town Manager Tom Harmer told Longboat Key News that although the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) wished to dramatically increase street lighting on Gulf of Mexico Drive, the commission negotiated a less intense approach.

“FDOT wanted us to light the entirety of GMD. Our concern is it would look like a runway,” said Harmer.

The FDOT relented on its desire, but said the town does have to light intersections in the vicinity of crosswalks.

The commission opted to also add additional lighting along the roadway at Whitney Beach Plaza as well as along the Centre Shops in front of the churches that front Gulf of Mexico Drive.

The lights will be LED and will be cast from what are referred to as the “cobra head” fixtures.

Harmer said the light poles will likely be black and aluminum or fiberglass and a smaller diameter than currently exists along the roadway today.

The question as to how high the poles and light fixtures will stand was resolved last spring when the commission approved 35-foot poles. The issue turned contentious with some residents wishing for the lowest poles possible and the town’s partner in the fiber optic project wanting taller poles.

Harmer says that while the poles are 25 feet, the light fixtures will hang off the pole as low as 25 feet.

The Town Commission has not chosen a fixture for lighting the neighborhoods but has decided that the poles will be 25 feet tall in the side streets.

The first stage of the project is the burying of the power line and the fiber optic installation will come next. At one time, former Town Manager Dave Bullock said part of the rationale for installing fiber optic in tandem with the utility undergrounding is that it only makes sense when you dig a trench to put in everything you might ever want to put in and repeat the work. But it turns out, that there will be very little trenching involved and that the majority will be accomplished through directional boring and the insertion of conduit and wires.

Additionally, Harmer said the fiber cable cannot be buried in the same conduit as the power lines and is essentially an additional act.


Our technological horizon

The Town is installing the fiber optic with a private partner named Waterleaf. Waterleaf hopes to essentially broker the town’s future fiber optic infrastructure and small cell wireless capabilities to major telecommunication companies through lease agreements. While the town and taxpayers are paying for the light poles, the fiber and the burying of the power lines, Waterleaf is responsible for installing an integrated system of smart cell antennas throughout the community that will be installed on the light poles and on additional poles as needed.

Waterleaf conducted a study last winter to determine how many smart cells are needed and where they should be located to fashion a system that could be viably marketed to telecommunication firms such as Sprint, AT&T and Verizon.

So far, Waterleaf has not secured any contracts but is designing the system in many ways to fulfill what Longboat staff and the commission hope is a defensive measure against the proliferation of smart poles. The fear is that if the town does not offer a superior or viable infrastructure that telecommunication firms will install any and all manner of poles throughout the community and will use the Federal Telecommunications Act as the legal entitlement to use any public right-of-way they wish.

In short, it is an attempt to control the aesthetic and technological destiny of the community.

Opponents to the plan have argued that telecommunication companies will simply put up their own poles anyway and cannot be coerced into using the town’s system. Others have said that emerging technologies will use other frequencies that will soon eliminate the need for such an infrastructure.

Nonetheless, Harmer says that the fiber can allow a myriad of potentialities including smart metering of utilities, a town wide municipal wifi system, and a means to offset some of the costs and leverage the system using the private sector.

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