Voter approval in a March 15 referendum has started the clock on a project to convert to underground all overhead utilities—electric, telephone and cable—in the town of Palm Beach, Fla. The referendum approved a $90- million bond issue to fund the project, which will take up to 10 years to complete. Engineering design is expected to begin in May, lasting nine to 12 months. The construction start is scheduled for May 2017, says Paul Brazil, public-works director for the town.

A barrier island with a maximum 16 ft elevation, Palm Beach is 13 miles long and about a mile wide at its widest, says Patricia Strayer, town senior project engineer. Since 2003, studies on “undergrounding” the town’s utilities have stumbled over the cost. “The most significant obstacle to undergrounding utility infrastructure arises with efforts to convert existing overhead facilities to underground because of the high cost of making these conversions,” says a 2012 report from the Edison Electric Institute. But the state has mandated that all critical facilities be hardened to protect them from storms and hurricanes. Florida Power & Light Co. is offering a 25% discount on the cost to underground and touts the benefits of reliability, safety and aesthetics.

“Because the town is a barrier island, the lines will be buried below the water table, regardless of sea-level changes,” says Strayer. Town officials say the lines will be resin-coated and waterproof.

The town is negotiating with Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. to perform as the engineering design consultant. Duties will include program management, master-planning utility coordination, detailed design, permitting and construction administration, Strayer says.

How the work will be done is still an open question. For each of the neighborhood jobs Palm Beach has completed to date, officials determined that the least expensive option was a combination of local contractors and the three affected utilities. “We do not have a schedule for the construction contracts at this time,” Brazil notes.