The Most Challenging Fiber Permits

The Virginia House of Delegates recently took up the issue of regulating the fees and the time it takes to get a permit to cross railroad tracks with fiber or other wire infrastructure. This seems to have originated from complaints from some of the winners of the $722 million in state broadband grants that have recently been awarded. I also saw that a similar bill is being debated in Arizona.

There are a lot of complaints made about the regulatory hoops that must be navigated to get onto poles. But we rarely hear about the problems encountered when trying to cross railroad tracks, bridges, interstate highway underpasses, or parklands. Each of these situations can add both time and cost to a fiber construction project.

There are lot more miles of railroads than a lot of people assume. In a rural area, the first challenge is often finding out who owns a given set of tracks. The large railroads own the major rail paths, but there are a ton of different owners of the rights-of-ways for spurs off the mainline. Those spurs were sometimes built by a factory to provide a path to ship products. Some spurs are owned by local governments. A lot of spurs are owned by small railroad companies – a few of which have gobbled up the rights-of ways from defunct railroads.

One of the issues with railroad crossings are the fees. It’s not hard to be hit with fees of $3,000 to $5,000 for a permit for a single rail crossing. A rural fiber route might cross several sets of tracks, and roads will often cross back over the same rail line multiple times. There are also horror stories of railroads that want much higher fees. It’s routine that the owners of defunct tracks, some that haven’t been used for decades, still expect payments for a permit to cross the tracks. I’ve saw permitting cost of $10,000 for a railroad line where locals can’t remember seeing a train for at least twenty years.

The issue isn’t only the fees. Because the process of getting a permit can drag on for a long time. It’s not unusual to see a permit take six months, and I’ve heard stories of permits taking well over a year. I suspect it was the time required in getting permission to cross the tracks that got the attention of the Virginia legislature. States like Virginia have been striving to get fiber deployed quickly after awarding grants, and a slow railroad permit can stop a project dead in its tracks, so to speak.

The Virginia legislation would cap crossing permit fees at between $750 and $1,500 (Senate versus House versions). More importantly, the legislation would require railroads to respond to a permitting request in thirty days.

While this legislation doesn’t address other rights-of-way problems, there can be similar delays getting permits to cross bridges. The problem with crossing a bridge is that there usually is a delay until and engineer certifies that the bridge will not be harmed by adding a conduit along the side. I have to admit that it’s scary to think that relatively light conduit could endanger a bridge, but in almost all cases this a step that is perfunctory, but necessary to get the permit. However, I have worked with clients who have been denied a bridge crossing. The reasons given for the refusal have usually been aesthetic and not structural. But I know of a few cases where permits were denied for bridges that were scheduled to be upgraded – in one case, with the upgrade was scheduled five years in the future.

As hard as those situations are, the slowest permitting can occur when needing to cross parkland or other public lands. This issue with these permits is not the cost, but the long waits to get approval. And approval often comes with requirements that make it impossible to build. I recall one park permit that said that fiber couldn’t be buried – and this was to cross a park where there are no existing poles.