Town asks CL&P to look at underground wires

With many town residents calling for Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) to move power lines underground and the utility adamant that it’s not a practical solution, new data could soon emerge to show which side is right.

The town has gotten in touch with CL&P to examine four specific areas of town as to whether moving power lines underground could work and what the cost would be.

While the town got through the recent blizzard with no major power losses, there have been problems in all the other major storms, including the March 2010 nor’easter, Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Halloween blizzard in 2011, and last year’s Superstorm Sandy. Those storms knocked out power to residents in certain areas for close to a week in each case, and there were demands after those incidents for CL&P to look at moving power lines underground.

The utility has continued to say that the process is too expensive and impractical, citing the cost of the work of pulling up areas of the streets and also coordinating with other utilities that have wiring up, including phone and cable companies, to move down underground with them. The call for undergrounding of lines has continued, though, and now the town says it has specific areas it wants CL&P to look at.

At the Board of Selectmen’s Feb. 14 meeting, Mr. Tesei said this has been in a “holding pattern” after the town discussed it once in a meeting with the utilities. But thanks to what Mr. Tesei called the “good work” of town Commissioner of Public Works Amy Siebert, the town now has looked at four areas of Greenwich that could serve as a testing ground for the practicality of having underground wires.

“This will be able to give us a much better perspective of the cost of not only putting the overhead electrical utility wires underground but all the other accompanying wires, like voice and cable and data, as well underground,” Mr. Tesei said. “It’s a fairly large undertaking, but now we have determined areas to focus on as a hypothetical.”

Mr. Tesei said this list has been sent to CL&P for its review and he outlined the areas being looked at. Downtown Greenwich was listed as the biggest priority, as wiring could conceivably be underground from the CL&P substation on Railroad Avenue to Field Point Road all the way past Greenwich Hospital to William Street and onto Sherwood Place near Second Congregational Church to Milbank and then once again back to Railroad Avenue after looping around. Mr. Tesei said that’s the concept the town likes and now CL&P will look at its own infrastructure with that area to deem if it’s feasible.

“Once they do that, we can talk to the other utilities and tell them that this is what we’re looking at,” Mr. Tesei said. “Now we can get to work on getting a better cost estimate and a visualization of what this will look like. That’s the piece I  think we often overlook. We need to have a visual sense of what this will look like.”

Mr. Tesei said downtown is a very important area to be looked at because of the concentration of senior population there as well as valuable institutions like Greenwich Library and the Greenwich Senior Center, which people would likely rely upon during a long-term power loss. Town Hall and the Public Safety Complex are powered by generators if needed, but those other buildings are not.

There are three other areas where Mr. Tesei said the town faced the biggest challenges to maintaining service to at-risk populations. King Street is being examined for possible underground wires because of the private senior care facilities there. Those facilities have generators, but long-term outages can provide a lot of strain and potentially create a precarious situation. This examination would cover King Street from Sherwood Avenue to Cliffdale Road.

Stanwich Road, from East Putnam Avenue to the Merritt Parkway, will also be examined. Mr. Tesei said this area is on the list because of its proximity to Banksville.

“Banksville has been an extremely challenging area for several reasons, perhaps not unlike some of the other non-public water areas,” Mr. Tesei said. “They had no access to drinking water and no ability to flush toilets and so forth. That takes in a large swath on Stanwich Road east and west. They will come back and tell us specifically what impact that will have.”

The final area being explored is Riverside Avenue beginning at St. Catherine’s down to the railroad station before looping around to Oval Avenue and coming out onto Sound Beach Avenue. Mr. Tesei said this was chosen because it encapsulated several neighborhoods and senior facilities.

Mr. Tesei stressed that this was just an exploration of how feasible this was and not a guarantee that there would be underground lines in these parts of town.

“A lot of this is easier said than done, but you have to start somewhere,” Mr. Tesei said. “This is like moving to the next step, and it’s probably taken longer than I would have liked. So let’s pray that there’s no more storms and we can move forward on advancing this.”

Mitch Gross, a spokesman for CL&P, told the Post that the presentation had been received by the utility and that discussions with Mr. Tesei and the town committee charged with examining this issue would probably begin within the next week. Mr. Gross said CL&P would look at the four locations to “see if it would improve reliability” to move the wires underground but would also look at other factors too like property easements and what impact this could have on neighborhoods if transformers and other equipment had to be put up.

A discussion was held last year between CL&P and town residents about moving the lines underground at the behest of state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st District). Mr. Camillo said he has heard all the reasons from CL&P why it doesn’t think it will work, but he has not closed the door on it, suggesting that if the costs of all the repairs from storms over the last four or five years were added up it might shed new perspective on the cost of undergrounding. In an interview with the Post on Monday, Mr. Camillo said he was glad to see the town take this step.

“I think it’s great and I applaud the first selectman for doing this,” Mr. Camillo said. “Both sides need to be heard on this issue, and my perspective has always been that we need to have an honest discussion of this issue and not just accept the CL&P figures. Other jurisdictions have done it and it’s been a big success there. I know there are challenges and I know there’s a cost here, but this has to be discussed. To just say it’s too expensive and then throw up your hands and walk away is unacceptable.”

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