Commentary: Burying Utilities Should be a Priority

Commentary: Burying Utilities Should be a Priority

As we enter hurricane season, I start to get questions about burying utility lines. We are making limited progress in Virginia but efforts hit a setback last week.

In communities built since the mid-1980s all utilities are underground. In the older parts of Northern Virginia, such as where we live here in eastern Fairfax and Prince William counties, nearly all utilities are above ground.

In June, 2012, Northern Virginia was rocked by a Derecho that stormed in from Chicago, killed 22 people and caused over $2.9 billion in damage. Our older infrastructure, coupled with our heavy older and established tree canopy caused major utility outages. In the Derecho’s aftermath, I heard calls through my district for undergrounding of utility lines. I even held a townhall focused exclusively on undergrounding power lines.

In the 2014 General Assembly Session, the General Assembly passed legislation declaring power line undergrounding in the public interest and authorizing Dominion Power to spend no more than $200 million per year and recover up to $2 billion from ratepayers to underground electrical lines but required the effort to focus on lines that were particularly prone to outages. Dominion’s methodology focuses on lines that have failed nine or more times in the last 10 years.

Unfortunately, this program does not bury cable or phone lines due to problems with cost, coordination and easements. I am exploring methods communities could partner to achieve this, but it is a very difficult problem. Also, none of this addresses undergrounding commercial utilities which is something that is only funded by localities, is desperately need on U.S. 1, and I will write about that separately in the future.

Over the last two years, Dominion has been implementing this program. For example, Dominion finished burying a problematic line in Waynewood last week and held meetings last month regarding plans to underground certain lines on Mason Neck.

Focusing on outage-prone lines not only improves reliability for those customers, but it improves service for everyone by allowing work crews to focus on other outages (e.g. your house) and get your power turned back on, plus it reduces repair costs over the long term which reduces everyone’s rates.

However, Dominion cannot do this without supervision from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) who must approve all utility actions that affect electricity rates. The SCC rejected the first proposed round of undergrounding so we passed additional legislation last session to make the General Assembly’s intent more clear.

Although the SCC approved the first $122 million phase, last week — while the costliest hurricane in history was hitting the United States — the SCC rejected Dominion’s second request for 244 miles of undergrounding at $270 million which creates uncertainty for the continued effort and will slow everything down.

We have a long way to go to get our area infrastructure up to par with the newer parts of Northern Virginia and next session, I plan to do everything I can to limit the SCC’s ability to kill these projects — they are too important.

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