D.C. power lines will be moved if $1 billion proposal passes

Pepco and D.C. government officials call it a "game-changer.” A $1 billion dollar proposal would move select power lines in the District underground and prevent long-term outages during future destructive weather events, like the recent Derecho.

And while some are calling for swift passage of legislation to fund the project, others are pumping the brakes on the proposal.

Testifying at a public hearing on the Electric Company Infrastructure Improvement Financing Act of 2013, critics said they want more oversight, more details and more time for the process to play out.

The legislation formalizes the recommendations of a task force, created by Mayor Vincent Gray after the 2012 Derecho.

Pepco Ceo Joe Rigby said, “There is a very unique opportunity in front of us to do something that is going to have a dramatic impact and benefit the customers of the nation's capital.”

Through a public-private partnership, Pepco and the D.C. Government would split the costs 50/50 on the $1 billion, seven year plan to underground 60 of the District's high-voltage primary lines most vulnerable to storm damage.

At a public hearing Monday morning, D.C. Council members heard testimony from business owners who support the proposal. The business owners said they have lost millions in past storms and outages.

Ward 4 resident and Ward 5 small business owner Pedro Alfonso said, “The impact on the biz has been very negative over the years – lost productivity, employees can't come to work.”

But to fund the project, Pepco customers would see rate hikes.

If approved, rates would initially increase by $1.50/month. By 2020, the increase would top out at $3.25/month. Eventually, the rate would start decreasing back to pre-project levels.

Because of those rate increases, there is debate over how quickly the proposal should be approved.

Community activist and D.C. Watch blogger Dorothy Brizill said, “All that we have today are the recommendations of a mayor's task force. That is not a plan.”

Brizill and others are demanding more details and more opportunities for public comment. Some question whether undergrounding is even the best option.

W. Shaun Pharr with the Apartment and Office Building Association said, “Undergrounding is hugely expensive and is not a silver bullet. It has it's own vulnerabilities as well.”

But Greater Washington Board of Trade CEO Jim Dinegar said, “The calls for delays are really just that – stall tactics. This does need to move with all due speed. It needs to be carefully managed, carefully watched, but it needs to happen and it needs to happen now.”

Supporters of the undergrounding project also point to job creation as one more reason to move forward.

At the D.C. Council hearing, City Administrator Allen Lew said an estimated $155 million in District wages and 240 jobs could be generated each year of the project. But labor groups are demanding “a well-defined and rigorous jobs program” – as part of the legislation – that ensures a certain percentage of jobs for D.C. residents.