“Dig once” advances via executive order

By Robbie Webber

A Government Accountability Office report issued June 27 outlines the advantages and disadvantages of requiring fiber optic conduit to be installed during construction of certain federally funded highway projects. The report release was preceded on June 13 by an executive order requiring federal agencies to ensure that broadband infrastructure projects, such as those laying fiber-optic cables, coincide with ongoing highway construction whenever possible to reduce private companies’ costs of expanding their high-speed internet networks.

The order is similar to legislation first introduced in 2009 — dubbed “dig once” by its Democratic proponents — that would require the Transportation Department to lay plastic pipes when it constructs federal highways. Wireless carriers could then run communications cables through those pipes when they expand their networks.

The executive order was applauded by the sponsors of the House and Senate bills also introduced in 2011 that failed to gain needed support. Despite general agreement that including conduit during construction of highway projects reduces the cost of providing fiber optic cable by 90 percent, other provisions in the bills caused concern among both private broadband companies and states that have already written their own policies on the leasing of conduit in transportation rights of way.

The GAO report outlined both the advantages and disadvantages of requiring conduit to be provided during highway construction or expansion.

By adopting a “dig once” policy and including conduit, broadband service can be more quickly, cheaply, and reliably extended to rural and poorly-served areas of the country. Broadband connectivity is rapidly becoming a requirement for economic development and global competition. Providing conduit during highway construction also decreases future disruption of traffic and limits the need to patch recently completed roadways.

However the GAO report also warned of some disadvantages to mandating inclusion of conduit. The route or length of the highway project may not properly serve the needs of broadband companies, so the required conduit may sit unused. Proper sizing of the conduit may be difficult to predict in advance if the companies that will use it are not prepared with their plans. Access nodes that are not planned in advance may further complicate planning for broadband expansion.

States also had concerns about the proposed legislation. Some states already have policies regarding leasing conduit access in transportation rights of way, while others have existing agreements with private companies. The proposed federal legislation would have limited how much states could charge for access. States that saw the leases as a revenue stream objected to this provision. Other states did not wish to take on the additional burden of administering leases and maintaining the conduit. Finally, states were concerned about diverting transportation funding to provide the conduit. Although in most cases the additional costs would have been approximately one percent, in certain difficult projects requiring boring in solid rock, the costs could have been significantly higher.

Because it only requires federal agencies to coordinate their activities with broadband providers, and does not mandate inclusion of conduit in projects or restrict state leasing agreements, mid-June’s executive order seems to have been embraced by all sides, alleviating the objections raised by the House and Senate bills while still providing efficient and inexpensive access to federally-funded highway projects for the expansion of broadband service.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.