Policy: Environment & Energy

D.C. taxpayers, Pepco customers citywide would pay price for $1 billion plan

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Pepco,Vincent Gray,Energy Department,Energy and Environment,Electricity

A panel has endorsed burying power lines in several areas of the District, a process that could frustrate drivers, clog neighborhoods, and cost taxpayers and Pepco customers citywide upward of $1 billion.

With Pepco President Joseph Rigby on one side and the District's people's counsel on the other, Mayor Vincent Gray on Wednesday announced that all sides had come to a consensus: The city plans to bury about 60 power lines underground over the next six or seven years to protect them from falling trees and other dangerous conditions.

The new power lines would be located in the city's outer wards since much of the District's interior already has buried lines.

Although the speakers were all smiles at the news conference, the enormous undertaking will inevitably leave some residents frustrated.

"Every aspect of your commute in the city is going to be impacted by this, not just the major roads," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. "Even once you bury these lines, that's not the end of the story. If they go out as they do in subsequent years, you drill down again."

The proposal, which will focus on burying major power lines in Wards 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, would be partially funded by Pepco customers across the city. Household rates are expected to increase to $1.50 monthly and then to $3.25 per month over the course of 15 years, and businesses are likely going to see a 5 to 9 percent increase in their power bills, according to Rigby.

Under the plan, the city would take out $375 million in District-backed bonds and between $62 million and $125 million from funds allocated for street paving in the city's budget.

That would require D.C. Council approval, and it could be about two years before the first power lines go underground.

The plan has already irked some residents.

"We've got a huge problem of rats in Ward 1 in Adams Morgan. On my street, in my alley, it's filled with pot holes -- it hasn't been fixed in 30 years. It's very frustrating," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "Why we'd be burying power lines in Ward 3, but we're going without some basic services in Ward 1? Something is very wrong here."

However, officials say residents in Wards 1, 2 and 6 have already benefited from underground power lines and that this proposal focuses on power lines that have been most hurt by major storms.

Pepco, the District government and public advocates support the proposal.

Sandra Mattavous-Frye, the people's counsel, said she came into discussions with "healthy skepticism but an open mind."

"It was clear that there needed to be a paradigm shift," Mattavous-Frye said. "I do believe this is a victory for consumers."

AAA's Townsend said the plan makes sense as long as the District can keep costs under control.

"We've had so many outages in the last couple years that people want to see changes," he said. "We all realize the probability that it's going to cause problems in the short term. But in the long term there will be benefits."

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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