By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
That’s the major proposal from a task force formed by Mayor Vincent Gray after last June’s “derecho” toppled trees and wires, leaving more than 100,000 households and businesses without power for days during a heat wave. “This,” Gray said at a news conference last Wednesday [May 15th] announcing the plan, “is a game-changer.”
Officials say they plan to “selectively underground” some 60 feeder or distribution lines with the worst record of outages in wards 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 — all outlying wards where electricity is largely supplied overhead.
Roughly half of the city, in downtown neighborhoods of wards 1, 2, and 6, has had lines buried underground for decades. Feeders are the top wires on poles that bring power from Pepco substations into large neighborhood areas.
Tony Robinson, spokesperson for City Administrator Allen Lew, said Monday [May 20th] that he can’t give exact locations for the lines that will be buried, since the final selection will be up to the D.C. Public Service Commission. But Robinson repeated assurances that customers served by the selected lines will see a 95 percent improvement in the reliability of their electric power.
The $1 billion project — the first phase of a possible effort to bury all remaining power lines — will be funded largely by District ratepayers and taxpayers. Under a complicated scheme involving both Pepco and municipal bonds, and some direct funding through the D.C. Department of Transportation, Pepco customers will bear the bulk of the cost. Current estimates are that a surcharge tacked onto Pepco bills will add $1.50 a month to the average residential bill in the early years, rising to $3.25 a month toward the end — about a 3 percent rate hike. Commercial customers will pay an extra 5 percent to 9.25 percent, with the surcharge shrinking away as bonds are paid off. Low-income customers will be exempt from any extra fee.
Sandra Mattavous-Frye, who represents District consumers as the “people’s counsel” on utility issues, heartily endorsed the plan. “It targets the worst-performing feeders across the city, shields seniors and many low-income residents from any increase, and spreads the costs so the remaining consumers will see very modest increases in their bills,” she said at the news briefing.
The entire project requires approval from the D.C. Council, with legislative review likely to consume much of the rest of this year. Pepco expects the actual work to begin in early 2014. “We expect work to get underway in each of those five wards,” said Pepco president Joe Rigby, who co-chaired the group. “We want to avoid any favored-nation status.”
Both Rigby and Lew, the other co-chair, called the selective undergrounding scheme, as well as the shared financing, an “innovative” approach. “After the derecho, this dialogue has been underway in every jurisdiction Pepco serves,” said Rigby. “But D.C. is, by leaps and bounds, much further out.”
“The mayor realized we couldn’t do it by ourselves, and Pepco couldn’t do it alone,” said Lew.
“Strategic undergrounding” will yield “the most bang for the buck,” several speakers said. Burying the most problematic feeder lines will cost 40 percent less than undergrounding all lines, but it will provide nearly the same benefit, according to task force documents. And for those served by the underground feeders, “it will be a fundamental shift in what they experience,” said Rigby.
The work will be scheduled, when possible, to coincide with other projects that require digging up the street. Lew noted that street repair in the District is on a 10- to 15-year cycle. “In 15 years, every street in the city is redone. So we can leverage what’s already in the budget, and what the federal government is already paying” for roadwork, the city administrator said.
Some critics argue that undergrounding, while vastly expensive, is no panacea because it can be more difficult and costly to repair breaks in underground lines. But Matthew Frumin, a Tenleytown activist who served on the task force, said that hasn’t been true in the District.
“Here, our experience is that outages underground are shorter and fewer,” he said in an interview. “And there’s reason to believe that dealing with underground outages will be easier in the future because of new infrastructure and new technology. The expense of repairs is not a reason now, and even less of a reason going forward.”
Frumin, who recently ran unsuccessfully for a D.C. Council seat, said he’s pleased with the task force proposal as well as the process taken to reach it.
“All stakeholders at the table had different interests to protect. We got to a place where all could sign on to significant investments,” he said. Debate about cost and equity could be contentious as the proposal winds through the legislative process. Those served by the selected feeders will see quick results, while other residents may not benefit until well into Phase 2 or 3, which could be years away. Downtown residents will see no increase in reliability, but their wires were undergrounded a century ago. And, as Frumin noted, $3.50 a month may not seem like much in Upper Northwest, but it could pinch in less-affluent areas.
Still, he argued, “Infrastructure improvements benefit all. You can’t just wave a magic wand and do it all at once.”
Gray noted other benefits: The undergrounding project will create 4,000 direct jobs and 150 indirect ones, he said, hopefully going mostly to District employees and firms. And the money saved by avoiding costly outages will benefit everyone.
“When a school is closed because of a power outage, how many parents are affected?” he asked. “This is historic, the first time a local utility and municipality jointly petition” to do such improvements, said Gray. “We could be defined as natural enemies, strange bedfellows, but we were willing to hang up egos at the door.”
Gray also said the Transportation Department is planning a “demonstration project” soon to show how the undergrounding is done. There will be no need to turn off power to individual homes while work is underway, officials said.
From the May 22nd issue of The Northwest Current. Reprinted with permission from the Current Newspapers.