“We need a game-changer,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said yesterday.
D.C. Council members pressed the issue in a meeting with Pepco officials today. But the question is complicated, involving huge costs, regulatory concerns and lots of politics.
The most thorough local analysis of the question to date was done in a 2010 report commissioned by the D.C. Public Service Commission. The consultants determined that undergrounding options would cost anywhere from $1.1 billion to $5.8 billion, depending on how many lines were actually buried.
In their final determination, the consultants recommended burying major “feeder” lines, particularly the most troublesome ones, but in most cases leaving existing aboveground household lines in place. They also had another common-sense recommendation: Identify locations where road or utility work is already underway, and bury power lines there, thus saving on excavation, construction and paving costs.
No-brainer, right? Not so much. In the two years since that report was released, the city has reconstructed miles of arterial roads, but it has opted not to bury power lines on those thoroughfares that weren’t already buried.
It’s not because no one thought of it. Take the $35 million reconstruction of two miles of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, which was completed this spring after a planning and construction process that stretched back into 2008. Neighborhood residents pushed the city and Pepco to include underground lines as part of the work, but the additional cost stymied efforts to include it in the project.
Minutes of a May 2008 meeting where Pepco officials were present say that “Pepco indicated that if they have to put their lines underground, they want to be fully reimbursed by [the D.C. transportation department].” For a two-block stretch, Pepco estimated the cost at $300,000 for above-ground lines versus $1 million for underground lines. (Pepco has previously estimated undergrounding costs at $3.5 million per mile.)
The city eventually asked for more detailed cost estimates, and the following February, Pepco delivered them. But I can’t tell you what they were, because they were blacked out from a letter provided as part of a Freedom of Information Act Request.
“You’re already ripping up the road,” said Veronica O. Davis, a Fairfax Village resident who was active in the planning process. “We were trying to argue that [the cost of undergrounding] shouldn’t be as high. ... We tried very hard to get the numbers, and they would not give them up.”
Whatever the cost difference, the lines weren’t buried, and both the city and Pepco agree it was because they couldn’t agree on who would pay for it.
Michael W. Maxwell, Pepco’s vice president for asset management, said it is cheaper to bury lines as part of other construction, “but it’s not a lot cheaper.”
“We have no problem building it, but there’s a cost associated with it, and if no one’s paying the cost, it can be done without it,” Maxwell said. He added that if the utility did pay to bury the lines, the D.C. Public Service Commission would later have to judge it a “prudent” use of ratepayer funds.
For the city’s part, transportation department spokeswoman Monica Hernandez said Monday that the city considers utility undergrounding on a case-by-case basis and funding streams typically won’t allow it.
In the case of Pennsylvania Avenue, “From an engineering standpoint it may have made sense, but from a funding standpoint it didn’t,” she said.
So, thanks to a playground money dispute, power lines there remain aboveground, as they do on 12th Street NE in Brookland and other stretches of city streets recently torn up and put back together. Solving the problem will require either the city and Pepco cooperating on a funding solution or having city officials pass laws forcing Pepco to bury lines as part of streetscape projects.
Opportunity abounds: The city is about to embark on a $15 million reconstruction of Minnesota Avenue NE — another opportunity to bury lines that are currently on poles. But that’s not part of the project — at least not yet.
Hillcrest resident John Capozzi, who was among those pushing for undergrounding on Pennsylvania Avenue, is now pushing for undergrounding on Minnesota Avenue. Otherwise, he says, “We’ll have a new street which is beautiful, with nice curbs and beautiful sidewalks, but no power.”