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Column: Bury Power Lines in Mount Vernon and Lee?

Meeting on electrical service will be Sept. 11 at Sherwood Library.

— Two months ago, my wife and children were out of town so I decided to work at my office in the City of Fairfax until about 9:30 p.m. As I drove home from Fairfax, I was listening to WTOP and didn’t notice anything unusual other than a thunderstorm warning for the far western suburbs.

Around 10:30 p.m. the wind started blowing and the power went out. I called my wife after our generator didn’t turn on and looked outside. The 100-year-old trees in my yard were swinging around like Hurricane Isabel and it didn’t stop for 15 minutes. That’s when I knew this was no ordinary storm.

The next day, as I disseminated information and checked out Dominion’s outage map, it was obvious that we had a major situation on our hands. As I walked my dog through Hollin Hills, I had to repeatedly dodge downed lines. Multiple streets were closed. Trees were down everywhere. For some reason, the west side of Mason Hill got clobbered as that storm rolled in.

Dominion Power’s response was initially slow. There were multiple reasons for this, but the primary reason was that the Derecho was a complete surprise. Hurricanes or snowstorms usually allow for one or two weeks of preparation. Then, as the week went on, I started to receive a lot of constituent contacts about burying power lines.

This was not the first time I heard this. In the summer/fall of 2011, I knocked about 4,000 doors including doors in two precincts that were returned to the 44th District in redistricting — Hayfield and Kirkside which contains most of Hollin Hills. Last summer, we were hit by a Tropical Storm Lee, an earthquake, and then Hurricane Irene within about 45 days.

As I walked through Hayfield Precinct, I noted that about half the lines were buried and half above ground. In Kirkside Precinct, the Mason Hill neighborhood was buried and the rest were mostly above ground. Many people told me that the loss of electricity was a real problem in their community.

Another complaint that I hear is that many people feel we are one of the last places in Northern Virginia to have our service restored whenever a mass outage hits. After the recent Derecho, if you looked at the outage map, you would have seen that the western part of Fairfax County have relatively fewer outages compared to the neighborhoods closer to the Beltway so this is not entirely inaccurate.

There are several reasons for this. One reason is that our neighborhoods are older and we have more big trees which cause more outages. However, the second reason is because Fairfax County did not mandate the burying of power lines on new development until the 1970s so the “newer” part of the county has less above ground lines and less outages.

That has led many people to ask me why we can’t bury power lines in our part of Fairfax County. The answer is complicated. The short version is that burying power lines in existing communities is possible, but it is very expensive, disruptive, and complicated.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission examined the issue on a statewide basis in 2004 and concluded that burying utility lines statewide would cost $91 billion or about $3,500 per customer. It can also be done in neighborhoods by choice, but it is extremely complicated.

Given the recent level of interest in the issue of burying power lines and the reliability of our service generally in our area, I have arranged a Town Hall meeting with Senators Puller and Ebbin and the vice president for distribution of Dominion Resources on Tuesday, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Sherwood Library.

Please get out the word to your neighbors, attend, and bring your questions. If you are interested in finding out the steps to bury lines in your neighborhood, this is your chance to find out how you can do it. It is a rare opportunity to give feedback on a critical issue in our community.

It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.