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County still unsure on Hwy. 144 power lines
144 Presbyterian church
Burying power lines on Highway 144 would eliminate electrical outages caused by falling trees, such as those caused by this incident during Hurricane Irma. - photo by Ted O'Neil

Bryan County commissioners are still unsure if they will pay a portion of the cost to bury power lines on Highway 144 as part of a planned widening on the state route that could begin as early as next year.

Coastal Electric approached both the county and the city of Richmond Hill about partnering on the project that would remove utility poles and place power, cable and telephone lines underground.

The Georgia Department of Transportation had said it would seek bids in March on widening Highway 144 from Timber Trail to Belfast River Road. About two miles of the project is within the city limits and another three miles — beyond Port Royal Road — are in the county.

The project is now on hold while environmental studies are repeated, although officials say it could still begin in 2018.

Coastal Electric said it would be reimbursed by GDOT to move utility poles that are currently in the right of way, but rather than move the poles the power company proposed a cost-sharing plan with the city and county to remove the poles and bury the lines.

The county’s share would be $603,000 and the city would pay $420,000. City council in August unanimously approved the plan, saying it would improve aesthetics, safety and electrical service.

Chris Fettes, Coastal Electric’s vice president for engineering and operations, said there have been 20 vehicle accidents involving utility poles on Highway 144 over the last year that impacted electrical service to several neighborhoods along the state route. Power outages are also problematic when trees fall on the lines during storms such as Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Commissioners at their August meeting initially rejected the idea, then voted to table it.

Commissioner Brad Brookshire at that meeting made a motion to approve the expenditure, but it died when no other commissioner seconded the motion. It was then tabled for 30 days, but was not on the agenda for the county’s September meeting.

“We are so off base with what’s happening in this county,” Brookshire said at the time.

Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger said the board wanted more time to discuss the project and wanted to talk more with Coastal Electric, but was unable to do so ahead of the September meeting due to Hurricane Irma.

Commissioner Noah Covington at the August meeting said he was concerned that the county was being asked to subsidize a private company.

Brookshire later said he still supports the effort.

“I thought we were all on the same page,” he said. “I was stunned.”

The first-term commissioner echoed the city’s stance on the matter, saying that burying the lines would help with both the looks of Highway 144 and the functionality.

“The cost-benefit analysis works,” he said. “We keep talking about growth, but we need to make investments like this to be ready for it. Small fixes like this would have a difference in people’s quality of life.”

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