Work to start this year on burying key D.C. power lines

Work is to begin this year on an ambitious effort to bury key power lines in some District neighborhoods, two years after a freak storm kindled efforts to pursue “undergrounding” as a solution to widespread, long-lasting weather-related outages.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) signed legislation Monday authorizing the $1 billion plan, which will be implemented over five to seven years and funded by a new surcharge that could add several dollars a month to the average power bill. Pepco this week released the first details of which neighborhoods will be first to have their high-voltage lines known as “feeders” buried, and when.

Further progress depends on the approval of the D.C. Public Service Commission, the District’s utility regulator, which must approve the surcharge and a three-year work plan after the legislation passes a congressional review period required of all District legislation.

Commission Chairman Betty Ann Kane sat on the task force that developed the undergrounding plan, and she expressed optimism that it will win swift approval.

“We’re ready to go,” said Kane, a former D.C. Council member. “We’re set. We’ve had internal meetings. We’re getting our process ready to move this forward so we can get to the point where . . . perhaps we can get some shovels in the ground.”


Joseph M. Rigby, president and chief executive of Pepco Holdings, said at the bill-signing that work is expected to begin by the fourth quarter of 2014.

In the first year, work is planned in the following neighborhoods: American University Park, Spring Valley and Chevy Chase in Ward 3; Brightwood, Crestwood and Takoma in Ward 4; Michigan Park and Brookland in Ward 5; Marshall Heights, Benning Heights and Hillcrest in Ward 7; and Anacostia, Fairlawn, Congress Heights and Washington Highlands in Ward 8.

In subsequent years, work is scheduled to expand to other parts of those wards.

Monday’s bill signing was the culmination of a process that started shortly after the June 2012 “derecho” storm that knocked out power for days in many neighborhoods across the region. Gray said he wanted a “game-changer” to prevent prolonged economic losses and inconvenience from weather-related outages and appointed a blue-ribbon panel to study underground lines as a solution.

The plan that resulted, released last May, proposed burying the 60 most outage-prone feeders in the city. The lines proposed for burial are generally in the outlying parts of the city; neighborhoods closer to downtown already have buried lines in most cases. Most of the cost will be borne by Pepco customers, but the city is agreeing to shoulder some costs as part of future transportation projects.

Officials have said the work is likely to cause moderate disruptions to traffic and parking in affected neighborhoods as streets are reconstructed — a process that will be managed by the D.C. transportation department.

Monday’s bill signing was another opportunity for back-patting from the mayor, Pepco leaders and consumer advocates who participated in the task force.

“I think this will go down in the history books, something you would research in a graduate business class,” said City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, who negotiated the deal on Gray’s behalf.

Kane said the plan puts the city in the vanguard of tackling major infrastructure projects.

“The District of Columbia kind of gets dissed, you know, looked down upon a lot,” she said. “But compared to a lot of other states now, I think we should be very, very proud of the mayor’s leadership, of our ability to work together and come up with the solution to a very thorny — not a very difficult engineering problem, but a very difficult logistical, financial, political problem.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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