City to explore underground power lines

By Tom Joyce -
A cluster of overhead utility lines is framed against the sky in downtown Mount Airy. -

Occasionally, interest is sparked in moving overhead utility lines in downtown Mount Airy underground, and while city officials recently stopped short of including that among their priorities they’re at least interested in exploring the idea.

“It won’t hurt to get Duke to come look at it,” Mayor David Rowe said of local electrical provider Duke Energy during a city council work session earlier this month when cost and other considerations regarding that issue were discussed.

A comprehensive plan approved by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners in November 2015 listed moving overhead lines underground as a high priority, based on surveys among citizens which formed the basis for plan recommendations.

The number one strategy in a Services and Infrastructure category of the comprehensive plan is “beginning with the downtown, (to) bury overhead utility lines in highly visible areas throughout the city to improve both aesthetics and electrical grid reliability.”

However, when Mount Airy officials met for a budget work session earlier this month, moving lines underground did not see much light of day as a top priority for committing city dollars.

While redeveloping the city-owned Spencer’s property, revitalizing Market Street nearby, escalating water and sewer line rehabilitation and correcting ongoing flooding at Reeves Community Center’s Cherry Street parking lot and adding spaces were tapped, the overhead line proposal was shot down.

“I think the power lines should be taken off all of this,” Commissioner Dean Brown said of including it among the priorities. Brown cited the “astronomical” cost involved.

Commissioner Shirley Brinkley agreed.

“I think it’s going to costs tons of money,” Brinkley said of what the city government would face in moving power or other lines underground in order to make the downtown area more aesthetically pleasing and prevent electrical outages.

National studies have placed the expense of transforming overhead lines to underground lines at $350,000 per mile to $3 million a mile. The cost can vary based on the uncertainties of digging underground and possibly paying to acquire easements or rights of way from affected property owners.

In forcing telephone or cable television companies whose lines piggy-back on power company poles to bury theirs, those costs might be passed on to consumers.

Moving lines underground in a heavily developed area, such as downtown, would be more costly in comparison to a residential section where burrowing faces fewer barriers.

Despite such concerns, Mount Airy officials are willing to revisit the proposal — at least to the point of looking under the hood and getting updated on the potential cost.

“I’d really like to see an estimate of what it would be,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said.

Discussion at the work session indicated an interest in exploring what cost-sharing arrangements Duke Energy might offer concerning underground lines at this time.

No specific timetable was mentioned to investigate the possibility.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

A cluster of overhead utility lines is framed against the sky in downtown Mount Airy. cluster of overhead utility lines is framed against the sky in downtown Mount Airy.

By Tom Joyce