The official in charge of the District's day-to-day operations said Thursday that city leaders would not stand for massive increases in electricity bills in exchange for Pepco burying power lines throughout Washington, a project that could cost up to $6 billion.
"We believe that a billion dollars unloaded on the consumer is outrageous, and that would never fly," City Administrator Allen Lew said. "But if a portion of the costs that we're talking about was to be assigned to the consumer, along with all of the other things that we're looking at, it might allow us to move forward with this."
Pepco has said previously that spreading out the costs over a decade could add more than $200 a month to residential electric bills.
At the first meeting of a task force that will recommend by Jan. 31 whether the city should move its electrical lines underground, Lew said District authorities were considering an array of methods to mitigate costs. The strategies, Lew said, might include federal assistance and coordinating road construction projects to mesh with Pepco's schedule to tear up streets to bury the lines.
"We're not looking to unfairly burden any one particular group," Lew said. Herb Harris, a Ward 7 resident who is a member of the task force, said he didn't think D.C. customers would tolerate a rate increase without guarantees of better service.
"There is no appetite for any rate increases that don't directly result in tangible, quantifiable reliability and benefits," Harris said.
Pepco is already seeking a rate increase of about $5 a month, but D.C. utility regulators haven't ruled on the request.
Although Pepco said 60 percent of D.C. customers already benefit from underground lines, city leaders began looking at increasing those figures after 64,000 customers lost electricity -- and air conditioning -- for days during a triple-digit heat wave following a massive June storm.
Joseph Rigby, president and CEO of Pepco Holdings Inc. and co-chairman of the task force, said he recognized customers are demanding permanent solutions.
"We understand the impact," Rigby said. "There is no higher priority on my list than being able to serve all of our customers with reliable power."