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This utility line carries more than gas

Utility lines provide us amenities like electricity, water, and gas, but they can also improve the physical connections between communities. A new video shows how one gas line in Montgomery County doubles as a trail and neighborhood gathering space.

John Wetmore, producer of the public access TV show Perils for Pedestrians, recently made a video about an underground pipeline in Olney. The line cuts a 200-foot-wide swath nearly two miles long through several neighborhoods, with just two streets crossing it.

Instead of closing it off, gas company Transcontinental opened the land above its underground pipeline in Olney to the public, building a foot and bike path along its entire length, as well as an informal playing field. Not only does this provide a usable open space for the neighborhood, but the trail's an important connection within the community, providing access to other trails, parks, a library, schools, and several shopping centers.

But the fun stops where Transcontinental's pipeline crosses Pepco's above-ground power lines. While there are examples of safe trails along power lines, this one is completely off-limits to the public. It's ironic because Pepco's slogan used to be "We're connected to you by more than power lines." But it's a bigger shame because there's a lot more to connect on the other side, including Magruder High School, the Intercounty Connector Trail, and Lake Needwood.

Not every utility line is safe for the public to be near, but there are lots of benefits for making them available, both for the larger community and immediate neighbors. As Wetmore says, "Transcontinental's right-of-way invites the community in. Pepco's right-of-way has no trespassing signs. Which corporation would you rather live next to?"

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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If you're driving around in the country you'll usually see lots of ATV/4 Wheeler trails zipping in and out among utility lines. These might not all be sanctioned but they exist.

And the Custis/W&OD really hug some utility lines as well around Falls Church/Arlington.

by drumz on Dec 26, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

I actually understand Pepco's wish to not have trespassing on its property, in terms of both safety for hikers and bikers, and security for its lines. Perhaps some sort of covered, enclosed structure could be built to allow the path to cross under PEPCO's line?

by Frank IBC on Dec 26, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

Wasn't it the water company in Montgomery County which recently tried to get something like a 200' exclusion zone around all of their larger water mains?

Life involves risk tradeoffs and we can not eliminate all risks.

by H2O on Dec 26, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

Frank IBC, if PEPCO gives permission to trail users, it's not trespassing. And I don't understand how closing their land from the use of hikers and bikers improves safety or security.

by David C on Dec 26, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

I can sympathize with Pepco: I can only imagine the liability concerns associated with opening their RoW, and am actually quite surprised that the gas company has done so. Not to mention, they spray some gnarly herbicides under those power lines. At any rate, perhaps some degree of relief from liability could be dealt with in the state legislature.

Regarding security, though: the railroads, who after 9-11 took a zero-tolerance policy towards "railfans" taking train pictures, eventually realized that allowing some degree of access to "good folks" was ultimately better than taking the hard line of jailing anybody who set foot on RR RoW. Those up to no good are going to trespass anyway; by opening the RoW (within reason) to public use, you can keep the bad element away and have more eyes to report suspicious activity.

by Craig H. on Dec 26, 2013 3:19 pm • linkreport

To what extent does Transcontinental have a different approach? Or does this mostly reflect a pipeline being built more recently with master planned (or permit based) facilities while Pepco right of ways precede the facility planning that are routine today?

MoCo should just take the land it needs for trails. The cost will be modest compared with the benefits. After a few condemnations, Pepco will find a better way to negotiate.

by JimT on Dec 26, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

The W&OD belonged to Dominion Power's predecessor before it was eventually acquired for a park after a few years of negotiations. Perhaps there's something unusually dangerous about these particular transmission lines in Olney, but it's hard to believe that Pepco and the County couldn't find some way to allow bikers and pedestrians to pass under them.

by jimble on Dec 26, 2013 5:41 pm • linkreport

Depending on the location, these could be great rights of way for transit. Sure, that would increase the foot traffic and security issues around them even more. But the transit authority could pay for security costs, it would still be much cheaper than carving out a new right of way elsewhere.

by Eric on Dec 26, 2013 6:30 pm • linkreport

I work in land development in PG and Montgomery County. Utility companies like PEPCO are very protective about keeping their Right-of-ways for their use only. This is for the rare situation in which they need to go in and unearth or repair their lines. Yes, it would be much more efficient and beneficial if we could overlap other uses on top of these right-of-ways. Write PEPCO some letters and let them know!

by Chris Allen on Dec 29, 2013 9:50 pm • linkreport

Here are some examples of high-tension power line Right Of Ways with ped/bike trails from around the country:
http://www.pedestrians.org/topics/row-gallery.htm

They look just like any other ped/bike trail. This is not difficult to do.

by John Z Wetmore on Jan 9, 2014 2:39 pm • linkreport

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