Photo by hellomarkers! on Flickr.

Should more of the power lines in the region be underground? That’s a question many are asking as many residents of DC, Maryland, and Virginia remain without power over 3 days after a storm and may not get it back for days more. Most, but not all, neighborhoods in DC with underground lines never lost power.

Mayor Gray thinks it’s worth talking about. He said, “People are fed up with power outages. We need a game-changer,” Mike DeBonis reports in the Post.

The problem is that burying lines is very expensive. But it’s not clear how expensive, because most of the estimates come from the utilities, and Pepco, at least, doesn’t have a lot of credibility on this.

When DDOT rebuilt the streetscape along Brookland’s 12th Street in 2008-2009, residents asked to have the lines put underground, but Pepco cited a cost that seems wildly high. Without better and independent information, it’s hard to have a conversation about burying lines.

Pepco gives very high cost estimates

Residents listed burying the lines as a top priority during early public meetings for the project. The lines are unsightly, and Pepco would often truncate the street’s trees to keep them from disrupting lines. Plus, putting the lines underground would reduce the change of trees falling on the lines and knocking out power.

Pepco told DDOT that it would cost $60 million to bury the lines along 12th. Plus, DDOT then-spokesperson Karyn LeBlanc said in an August 2008 email, Pepco rents space on its poles to telecommunication utilities as well, and burying the lines would require moving those wires.

LeBlanc added,

Each property that currently receives service from an overhead connection would need to be “rewired” to accept service from the newly undergrounded connection. This is a cost that would not be burdened to the utility but rather to the property owner. The current cost estimate is $15,000 per property and again that is just for the electrical service. The other communication lines would also need to be “rewired.” All these estimated costs would, of course, increase as costs for materials continue to increase.

Are these estimates reasonable?

At DDOT oversight hearings at the time, residents and council staff found comparable cost estimates from other jurisdictions that were putting lines underground. Scenic America said that burying the wires costs $500,000 to $3 million per mile. Since the project covered one mile of street, that means the estimate differ by a factor of 20 to 120.

Information from an undergrounding project in San Francisco put the cost to move a property’s connection at $1,500 to $2,000 per property, not $15,000.

These costs are still not small, but they might have been achievable. DDOT had $5.5 million in the project budget left over for miscellaneous streetscape tasks, which could have gone toward wires, but it was too late to make it happen at that point.

More importantly, this reveals a credibility gap for Pepco. The utility wasn’t really interested in putting lines underground, so it seems it threw out a very high estimate.

One streetscape won’t solve storm reliability

Underground wires on 12th Street could have saved businesses there from losing power, but wouldn’t have done much for a broader area. To really combat outages, Pepco would need to bury its main trunk lines.

According to DeBonis, Pepco does want to bury two lines, on Oregon Avenue NW along Rock Creek and on Michigan Avenue NE, near Brookland. It’s offered to do this as part of a rate increase currently before the Public Service Commission (PSC); Mayor Gray and other officials today said that maybe the utility doesn’t deserve to get its rate hike given what’s happened this week.

One thing is clear; unless the PSC starts pushing Pepco hard, wires won’t go underground. To the utility, there’s no incentive to invest in the cost of expensive infrastructure that’s more reliable, or just having more crews on hand to make repairs. As a for-profit company with fixed rates, their only incentive is to keep costs low, and that means skimping on reliability.

The PSC will have to push Pepco harder—if the District can get members confirmed who want to do so. It would help get the discussion going if there were independent, more realiable estimates for costs. We just can’t trust Pepco or industry groups whose incentives don’t line up with the general public.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.