The Case of the Vanishing Fiberglas Poles

Spectator readers often have great ideas: case in point, Bill Roberts’ suggestion (contained in this August 24 Letter to the Editor) that it would be interesting to know how much the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) paid to bury utility lines as part of its revamp of Spring Garden Road.

Roberts’ point was that it would give us some kind of fact to work with in evaluating what’s happening on Charlotte Street in Sydney, where utility lines are not just being left above ground, they are being strung on wooden poles.

The Post‘s Ian Nathanson has been following this story since at least June 2021, when District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald told him that the issue of underground wiring had been “one of the major delays” plaguing the Charlotte Street project:

We actually sent the electrical engineer on our steering committee back to our folks (in the CBRM) three or four different times to figure out a way forward.

And CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall said pursuing that goal might be too unrealistic.

“That would be (costing us) a lot more than $9 million to bury all of our lines,” McDougall said in June. “What we’re trying to do instead is make sure that the information lines and the power lines are in the best shape possible … and that all of our infrastructure is up to date.”

In August 2021, Nathanson spoke to two Downtown Sydney merchants, Les MacLean, a realtor for Keller Williams Select Realty, and Scott MacVicar of Spinner’s Men’s Wear, both of whom were pushing the CBRM to bury the lines.

MacLean told Nathanson:

They say they’re going to put up Fiberglas poles that will be more appealing. But I can’t imagine walking downtown and looking up at power lines.

Fast-forward to this August 2022 article, and MacLean and MacVicar are expressing their dismay that not only were the lines not being buried, the Fiberglas poles had been replaced with traditional wooden ones.


Trail grows cold

Nathanson tried his best to trace the decision-making process that began with a 2017 recommendation from Dartmouth-based architecture and planning firm Ekistics to bury the lines and ended in the usual, above-ground wooden poles, but the trail quickly grew cold.

Nobody at the CBRM seems to know who put the kibosh on the Fiberglas poles, least of all the municipal spokesperson whose job it is to convey answers to questions like this:

Even CBRM spokesperson Christina Lamey was unclear who altered the decision from Fiberglas to wooden poles. Lamey did provide a recent graphic outlining how the street light setup would look along Charlotte Street as the revitalization project went on.

“There was some discussion that the utility poles were going to be Fiberglas,” she said. “It went through variation iterations but I think it was changed to wooden poles at some point quite a while ago. Even at one point I was convinced it was going to be Fiberglas poles.”

Lamey suggested reaching out to Nova Scotia Power for a potential answer.

Nova Scotia Power told Nathanson that a “CBRM committee along with Dillon Consulting, who oversaw this project, made that decision.”


Steering committee

I have to assume (dangerous, I know) that the “committee” cited by both District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald and Nova Scotia Power is the “client steering committee” listed on the first page of the Ekistics report:

First Page of Ekistics Downtown Sydney Report, 2017

Source: Downtown Sydney Report, Ekistics, 2017.

I asked Lamey to confirm this, but as of publication time, she had not responded. That committee was made up of:

Rick McCre[a]dy (Project Manager)
Joe Farrell
Terry L. Clements
Mary Lynn MacPhee
Paul Burt
Michelle Wilson
Raymond J. Boudreau
John F. Phalen

Nathanson spoke to Michelle Wilson, head of the Sydney Downtown Development Association, without actually mentioning her role on this committee:

While she didn’t elaborate on who decided to switch from Fiberglas poles to wooden poles, nor when or why that decision was made, Wilson feels there really shouldn’t have been utility poles kept in at all for Charlotte Street.

“I was a squeaky wheel in all this over the years,” said Wilson. “But at the end of the day, I’m trying to weigh the benefits against some of the things we would have like to have gotten.”

At this point, it occurred to me that all I had to do was look up the minutes of the Steering Committee meetings and I’d have my answers but I couldn’t find any such minutes on the CBRM website. When I asked the Municipal Clerk’s office if such minutes existed and if so, where they might be found, my query was directed to the Engineering Department and the Engineering Department has yet to get back to me.


Whack estimates

But I started this article by telling you I had decided to ask HRM how much it cost to bury the power lines on a section of Spring Garden Road that stretches three blocks from Queen Street to South Park Street.

I should begin by noting that although the section of Charlotte Street to be upgraded is longer (five blocks) than the section of Spring Garden Road that was upgraded, the overall budget for both projects was roughly the same: $9 million for Charlotte Street, $10 million for Spring Garden Road.

HRM spokesperson Klara Needler responded immediately to my question on August 23, saying she would look into it, then on August 25 (after apologizing for the delay) she wrote:

The cost to bury the power lines was approximately $2.5 million dollars [emphasis mine].

The contractor was responsible for completing the civil work, including the construction of ductbanks and vaults. The utilities were responsible for handling the wires and removing overhead lines.

This work was part of the $10 million contract awarded to Brycon Construction in May 2021.

Ekistics’ estimates for the Charlotte Street work included the cost of burying the utility lines. Here’s the relevant page (138) from the report:


As you can see, the total estimated cost for removing the old poles, burying the lines, providing temporary lighting and installing decorative lighting down Charlotte Street from Dorchester to Townsend was $1,661,310.

Now, compare those price tags to the numbers being batted around in that most recent Post article, in which Scott MacVicar tells Nathanson:

“It sounds like they’d need about $19.7 million to put wiring underground for the other side. And the money just doesn’t seem to be there for Cape Breton. Plus, I’ve had people say to me, ‘It’s a big ask and you don’t understand what’s involved to do this.’

But if we don’t “understand what’s involved” isn’t it the municipality’s responsibility to explain it to us? Would it really cost $20 million to bury the power lines on Charlotte Street? And if so, why did Ekistics get the estimate so wrong? This would mean the actual figure was more than ten times higher than their projection. And what is it that makes Charlotte Street’s utility lines so much more difficult to bury than Spring Garden Road’s?

I would just like an explanation. I don’t think it’s so much to ask.