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City Council considers blocking any future sale of Baltimore's 700-mile underground conduit system

The City Council is considering asking voters to block the sale of Baltimore’s 700-mile, century-old underground conduit system, a move supporters say could encourage a public broadband system in the future.

The terra cotta system dates to 1898 and contains telephone, electric and fiber-optic cables. The largest user of the system is the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which sought to buy the system for $100 million in 2015.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young is the lead sponsor on a bill filed Monday that would seek a charter amendment in November 2020 to permanently revoke the authority of city officials to sell the vast system. A second bill would strengthen penalties for any entities illegally using the system and require annual reports with detailed maps of how the system is being used.

“I am introducing these two pieces of legislation to think further about how city government can better preserve and improve internet access for Baltimore residents, businesses, students and visitors,” Young said. “I have always been a proponent of keeping our city assets public.”

Young said he introduced the legislation as a way of further protecting city assets from being sold to private companies. Voters approved a charter amendment Young sponsored last year to block any future sale of the city’s water and sewer system.

The majority of the council backs Young’s conduit legislation. Thirteen of 15 members have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bills were sent to the council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee for a hearing.

It was not immediately clear how much the conduit system costs in annual maintenance. Baltimore’s system is believed to be the largest municipally owned conduit system in the country.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has not yet taken a position on the legislation. However, her spokesman, James Bentley, said Pugh has been a “staunch advocate for maintaining ownership of city assets.”

Young believes the legislation could help taxpayers avoid the future cost of renting space in the system, if it were ever to be sold. The city uses the conduits to run wiring for the street lights and traffic lights, among other cables used for public services.

Owning the system also leaves open the possibly for the city to create a public broadband network, a measure Young is studying. Doing so, he said, could ensure residents have access to affordable, high-speed internet.

The legislation also would help generate more money for the network’s upkeep by cracking down on unauthorized use of the conduits, Young said.

“Cleaning up and reinvesting in our city’s conduit has the potential to help leverage this public asset to encourage more broadband providers to offer their services in Baltimore City,” Young said.

BGE — which uses about 75 percent of the conduit’s capacity — reached a settlement with the city in 2016 on the rate the company would pay to rent space in the underground network through 2022.

The utility was part of a group of telecommunication providers that sued the city when officials sought to more than triple the fees the companies pay to use the system to $3.33 a foot per year.

A spokeswoman for BGE said the company had not seen Young’s legislation and could not say whether it would support or oppose the bills. "BGE’s priority is to provide safe and reliable service to our customers," spokeswoman Linda Foy said. "As a user of the conduit system, we believe the system should be maintained such that it meets the current and future needs of our customers.”

The city spends about $30 million a year on capital improvements to the system, generated through user fees.

In other business, the council gave final approval to legislation that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective renters based on whether they use government housing vouchers.

The council exempted certain landlords who own multiple connected properties. Those property owners would have to rent only 20 percent of their units to people with vouchers. After four years, the council would have to decide whether to keep the exemption in place.

Housing advocates say the protection is necessary for low-income tenants, especially those who use Section 8 vouchers, to ensure they have an equal right to choose where they live.

The council also renewed a requirement that hotel employees be trained to recognize the signs that someone is being trafficked. The bill requires the staffs be trained every two years, rather than only upon hiring, as the council first required in 2016.

Both the anti-housing discrimination bill and the anti-human trafficking training bill go to the mayor for her consideration.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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