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D.C. Council Approves Plan to Put Power Lines Underground

Frustration over prolonged power outages following the June 2012 derecho spurred the District to probe the possibility of moving its power lines underground.

The storm knocked out the lights of 68,000 D.C. Pepco customers, and led Mayor Vincent Gray to establish a task force to dig into the logistics of a public-private partnership to fund the project. The $1 billion proposal that resulted was introduced to the D.C. Council in July 2013.

On Tuesday, in the midst of a severe cold spell, the council approved an amended version of the proposal, designed to keep the power running through future blizzards, derechos and other extreme weather events.

Gray is expected to sign what he’s declared a “game-changer” into law soon. He said in December that he was eagerly awaiting the council’s next step. After it passes the mayor’s office and a congressional review period, crews can start breaking earth on the seven-year project.

Members of the Capitol Hill community have long appreciated an underground power network, thanks to a congressional mandate. About 65 percent of the city’s lines are already buried. However, those who live outside the downtown core, particularly in the tree-lined neighborhoods of wards 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, find themselves vulnerable to power outages.

No matter what part of the city D.C. residents call home, all will pay for the undergrounding project. The cost will appear as a surcharge on Pepco bills, with an initial rate hike of $1.50 per month, increasing to a maximum of $3.25 over the course of the project.

The plan’s backers acknowledge that the undergrounding project could be done on a piecemeal basis at traditional rates, but that approach would take decades to complete. The financing bill authorizes bonds not to exceed $375 million. It also mandates that both parties try to hire exclusively District residents for the estimated 950 jobs created.

“If we’re going to spend a billion dollars building this, you want to make sure you’re hiring locally,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and a Democratic candidate for mayor.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie put forward an amendment that would require Pepco and the District’s Department of Transportation, which will handle street closures and paving, to report back to the council on their hiring progress every six months.

The plan won’t underground equipment for Verizon, Comcast or other communications companies, so TV, Internet and other services will still be subject to storm outages. It also won’t eliminate power lines from the streetscape.

After looking at the costs of burying all power lines around the District (work that carries a price tag of up to $5 billion), Pepco and D.C. opted to bury only primary lines that have experienced the most outages and have the greatest impact on reliability. Secondary lines and those that are less troublesome won’t be touched.

“This will be a huge, but important, undertaking,” McDuffie said.

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