City Council Votes to Underground Utilities on South Ivy

On Wednesday, the Canby City Council voted to proceed with undergrounding utilities along a soon-to-be improved portion of South Ivy Street at an estimated cost to the city of $1 million.

The total cost of burying the power lines and other utilities along that section of road is $1.3 million, with Canby Utility agreeing to kick in $300,000 — the cost they would have paid to relocate and rebuild the overhead lines under the original plan.

The proposal passed 4-2, with the nay votes coming from Council President Hensley and Councilor Jordan Tibbals, who voiced concerns about the project’s cost and how much of it was being borne by the city, as well as what they called a lack of clarity surrounding its funding source.

City Administrator Scott Archer and Finance Director Julie Blums were unequivocal that the city would be able to cover its expected $1 million share when the bill comes due in a couple of years, but exactly which fund would best suit the project was not as clear.

“I’m not a fan of the project,” said Hensley. “I don’t think it is worth the money, given the scope of work. And in this conversation tonight, I’ve heard a lot of ‘if allowed,’ ‘maybe,’ [and] ‘By the time we need the money, I think it will be there.’ I’m just not confident, and I’m going to be a no on this.”

Much of the haziness concerns the $3.6 million the city is expected to receive from the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act. Federal ARPA funds can legally go toward a variety of municipal projects, including some infrastructure, but the exact constraints have not been fully laid out.

“We are still waiting for guidance on what we can use that money for,” Blums explained. “We’ve been told, explicitly, it can be used for sewer and broadband and water. They did not call out transportation projects, so we’re waiting on further guidance on that.”

One of Tibbals’ biggest hang-ups was that most councilors seemed to agree the Canby Utility Board was not paying their fair share — and, indeed, part of the motion that ultimately passed was to direct Archer to continue negotiations with CUB to nudge them toward chipping in more.

Yet, by agreeing to pay the lion’s share of the cost — with or without an increased contribution from CUB — the city was conceding its best and only bargaining chip, Tibbals argued.

“To me, there’s no power in that negotiation whatsoever,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey — we’re going to move forward either way, but it would be great if you chipped in a little more.’ What’s the incentive? There’s no incentive. We have zero leverage in that negotiation.”

While essentially agreeing with Tibbals, Councilor Chris Bangs countered that the city has run out of time to make a decision. Though construction is not expected to happen until summer 2023, the undergrounding question would drastically alter the project’s design and right-of-way acquisition, which need to be completed well in advance.

The county had requested a decision by April 1 before agreeing to hold off further work until the end of the month.

“I do want to say that I think that Jordan is basically right,” said Bangs. “I agree with his position, but I don’t believe we can wait any longer. It’s decision time. And it’s an awkward and uncomfortable one, but that’s what we get paid the big bucks for: making these decisions with a lack of perfect options.”

Back in October, when the question of undergrounding utilities as part of the long-planned South Ivy improvement project initially emerged, Canby Utility General Manager Dan Murphy had signaled his disinterest in this part of the project, citing the high cost and the low wildfire danger posed by overhead lines in urban areas.

But discussions between city and CUB officials continued, and Murphy agreed to financially support the project with the funds the utility would have spent on reconstructing the overhead lines.

It’s unclear if CUB’s position may have further shifted following the destructive ice storms in February, which wreaked havoc on Canby’s power lines and other above-ground utilities.

Councilor Shawn Varwig, who has long been a vocal supporter of the undergrounding concept, and said he would continue to back the project even though it would bury lines only up to Lee Elementary School — and not the entire length of South Ivy as originally thought.

Beyond that, undergrounding became much less feasible due to much of the existing lines lying above private property — mainly, residential backyards along South Ivy.

“Even if you can’t finish the meal, you still eat dinner,” Varwig said. “I understand it doesn’t go all the way to 13th, but I still think it’s important to do this project. We can’t go back and do it if we don’t underground it now. We have to move forward with this, I believe.”

The motion passed with the support of Varwig, Bangs, Councilor Greg Parker and Councilor Sarah Spoon.

The undergrounding will be paid for from the city’s street reserve fund balance — unless a more attractive source of funding (including ARPA) is secured before then.

All other major improvement projects in the near future — including a critical industrial park outlet road at South Walnut Street — are fully funded and will not be affected by this expense, city officials said.

The improvement project, which has been in the works since at least 2012, will include the addition of sidewalks, ADA ramps, a bicycle lane and a new traffic signal at the intersection with Township Road near Bethany Church.

The project will also include resurfacing of South Ivy between Highway 99E and Lee Elementary School — a section of roadway that is currently under county jurisdiction, but will transfer to the city upon completion.

The project’s estimated total cost is $4.86 million, with much of the funding coming from county road funds and pass-through dollars from the State of Oregon.

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