Mayor Vincent C. Gray made it official today: A blue-ribbon committee will examine whether more power lines in the city should be buried.
The Gray administration said last month that such a committee was coming, and a mayoral order dated today establishes the Mayor’s Power Line Undergrounding Task Force.
Gray (D) spoke out early and often after the June derecho storm saying Pepco and the city should consider more widespread burial as a “game-changer” to prevent the inconvenience and economic losses caused by widespread power outages. Buried power lines are less susceptible to weather-related damage than overhead lines, but they are more costly to install and can be more difficult to fix when they do fail.
The panel is being co-chaired by City Administrator Allen Y. Lew and Pepco Holdings CEO Joseph M. Rigby and is composed of various high-level city officials, the chairwoman of the D.C. Public Service Commission, representatives of other utilities with overhead lines, two city residents and the people’s counsel — a public attorney who represents ratepayer interests in utility regulation matters.
Its charge is broad: According to Gray’s order, the panel is tasked with investigating the “general causes” of storm-related outages, collecting data on those outages over the past decade and considering the “cost and feasibility” of various undergrounding proposals. A report is due to Gray no later than
Jan. 1 Jan. 31.
Is this a first step toward real action to prevent devastating power outages? Perhaps, but for the moment it remains a long shot. Even modest undergrounding proposals are expected to cost in excess of $1 billion, and a recent Washington Post poll found that most city residents are not willing to substantially contribute to the cost of line burial through an increase in their power bills.
Barring a change in attitudes, or a proposal from city leaders to raise the money though other means (read: taxes), a major new undergrounding scheme looks to be a nonstarter.
Where it might help to have all these big players in one room is in improving coordination between the city and Pepco on burying lines as part of other public works projects. Note the opportunity missed during the recent reconstruction of Pennsylvania Avenue SE: Residents wanted buried lines, the city wanted buried lines, Pepco was willing to bury the lines, but there was an impasse as to who would be paying for it. Hence, the street was rebuilt, but the overhead lines remain.
The panel’s first meeting is set for next Thursday, Aug. 23, in Room G-9 of the John A. Wilson Building. Members of the public wishing to comment are asked to register by calling 202-478-9200 or e-mailing email@example.com.
The full list of task force members:
• City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, co-chair
• Pepco Holdings Chairman Joseph Rigby, co-chair
• D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), chair of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs
• Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander
• Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi
• Department of Transportation Director Terry Bellamy
• Department of the Environment Director Christophe Tulou
• Department of Public Works Director William Howland
• Mayoral Budget Director Eric Goulet
• Public Service Commission Chairwoman Betty Ann Kane
• People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye
• Verizon VP for Government Affairs Karen Campbell
• Comcast VP of Government and Regulatory Affairs Donna Rattley-Washington
• Matt Frumin, Ward 3 resident
• Herb Harris, Ward 7 resident
UPDATE, 4:45 P.M.: The task foirce report is due Jan. 31, not Jan. 1.