The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Plan to bury D.C. power lines remains sketchy

An uprooted tree lies on power lines as a result of the storm associated with Hurricane Sandy in Washington in October 2012. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
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The billion-dollar “game-changer” of a plan to protect District residents from massive power outages got its first public hearing at the John A. Wilson Building Monday, five months after a task force convened by Mayor Vincent C. Gray proposed it.

And while government and utility officials who served on the task force remain upbeat about the “undergrounding” plan, some key details remain sketchy — most notably, which neighborhoods will have their power lines buried, and when?

The outlines of the project, as discussed Monday, have not changed appreciably from when the plan was unveiled in May. New surcharges on Pepco bills starting at a combined $1.50 for the average household would support roughly $1 billion in borrowing, allowing the utility and the city to bury 60 of the city’s most troublesome high-voltage lines.

“We feel pretty confident that we’ve got our arms around this,” Pepco Holdings CEO Joseph M. Rigby told a D.C. Council panel.

But while Rigby, his deputies and city officials have issued general information about their process for selecting lines to bury, they have yet to release any information on where the 60 “feeders” eyed for burial are located or when work might begin.

It was not clear during Monday’s hearing that any information of that nature would be released before the matter goes to a D.C. Council vote. William M. Gausman, Pepco’s vice president for strategic initiatives, said the company had gathered all of the reliability data necessary to figure out which line should be buried and that a list would be made public in the “not too distant future.”

People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye, a member of the task force, acknowledged a disconnect between the insiders’ perspective and the dearth of information released to the public. “We’re all familiar and feel comfortable” with the plan, she said. “But the general public doesn’t known that. All they know is that you’re asking for a billion dollars, you’re going to underground some wires, and it’s going to be reliable.”

More details would come when, after enabling legislation is passed, the matter moves to the D.C. Public Service Commission. Chairwoman Betty Ann Kane said Monday that Pepco would have to submit a detailed plan within 45 days after the legislation takes effect laying out details of which lines would be replaced and why.

There are indications political considerations could be involved, not so much in the selection of which lines get buried, but when they get buried. The “primary selection criteria” agreed to by the task force mention only reliability concerns, but “secondary” criteria including maximizing the number of customers affected, coordinating with other planned projects and limiting the amount of construction in any particular part of the city.

Rigby said no more than one high-voltage feeder would be buried in any particular ward at a time in order to limit the disruption to residents.

The plan fielded other critiques over the course of the five-hour hearing — including strong warnings from the main group representing owners of large office and apartment buildings that the surcharges would prove onerous to landlords and, ultimately, their renters. Washington Gas also weighed in, warning that the bill could impose “potentially huge costs” should power line burial work require gas lines to be moved.

Several green-energy activists also testifies at the hearing, urging Pepco to make “smart grid” upgrades as a part of the burial project, while others pushed city leaders to make sure District residents get good-paying jobs as a part of the project.

But the financing plan got a key blessing from a deputy to Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Economic development guru John Ross confirmed that the scheme, which in part uses the District’s borrowing capacity rather than Pepco’s in order to keep costs down, would not violate the city’s debt cap. The city, however, would end up having to pay higher electric bills, requiring lawmakers to find $3.4 million in next year’s budget — and still more in subsequent years.

It is unclear when the bill, which is being handled jointly by the council’s Government Operations and Finance and Revenue committees, will move forward. Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chair of the former panel, said he had not considered a markup date and demurred when asked if the bill might move to the full council before year’s end.

Between the council wait and a subsequent Public Service Commission process that could take at least six months, it’s likely it could be summer before the project moves toward any sort of concrete reality.

That will mark two years since the devastating derecho rolled through the area, kicking off the discussions of power line burial. But, in the realm of billion-dollar infrastructure projects, two years isn’t all that shabby.