Winter storm’s aftermath

Commission seeks support for burying Columbia’s power lines

ccope@thestate.comFebruary 22, 2014 

A pedestrian walks across Gervais Street in Columbia on Feb. 12, as snow and ice accumulated a second day in the Midlands and across South Carolina


  • Burying power lines – pros and cons


    • Increased reliability of power during extreme weather events such as ice storms and hurricanes

    • Enhanced pedestrian and bicycling resources

    • Allows for more shade trees

    • Aesthetic attractiveness in streetscapes

    • Improves safety by moving cables from exposed locations


    • Expense

    • Outages could last longer when lines are underground.

— At the peak of last week’s ice storm, more than 350,000 S.C. residents lost power – some for many days – largely because ice was weighing down trees, causing limbs to fall on power lines.

The Columbia Tree and Appearance Commission wants to make such outages less likely in future severe weather events by asking City Council to establish a long-term fund to finance burying power lines. .

To build momentum, representatives from the commission have appeared before other city boards, such as the Bicycle and Pedestrian Action Committee and Design Development Review Commission, which both have given their formal support. The tree commission plans to continue to go to city groups and neighborhood associations to gain more support before presenting the resolution to City Council for consideration by the middle of summer.

“What we’re saying is this needs to be a priority,” said Andrew Whitfield, chairman of the Tree and Appearance Commission and a geotechnical engineer.

But it’s expensive.

“In general, it costs up to 10 times more to bury lines in comparison to above-ground systems,” said Emily Brady, spokeswoman for SCE&G. “Just as cost is unique to each neighborhood or project wanting underground lines, engineering parameters for each project also must be taken into account.”

And underground lines are not immune to outages.

In last week’s ice storm, outages occurred in underground lines because overhead transmission or distribution lines were out and could not feed power to the underground lines, Brady said.

The Tree and Appearance Commission wants City Council to establish an annual fund that the city specifically would use for burying power lines, especially when there could be partnerships with other entities.

For example, the recent Assembly Street project by the University of South Carolina and the state Department of Transportation was a missed opportunity, Whitfield said.

“If the curb and the sidewalks are already being removed and replaced as part of a redevelopment, then that’s the time to get the overhead lines underground,” he added.

USC buried the power lines in the median of Assembly Street from Blossom to Pendleton streets and put fibers underground at the corner of Assembly and Greene streets as part of the $4.7 million project.

However, power lines remain along the sides of the streets.

The money that the university was willing to spend on the project did not allow for the burial of all the lines, said Dwight Cathcart, project manager of USC’s design and construction division.

“It wasn’t in our budget, and the city did not have enough money to bury the power lines at the time we needed the project done, which coincides with the completion of the Darla Moore School of Business,” Cathcart said.

If the commission’s resolution passes, City Council would set aside money specifically for those kinds of situations.

Some money already exists.

Through the franchise agreement between the city and SCE&G, there is a commitment to funding nonstandard service projects such as putting utilities underground, assistant city manager Missy Gentry said. Through the program, SCE&G matches a minimum of $500,000 per year that the city contributes for projects agreed upon by both agencies, she said.

The city has spent $28 million on burying power lines using that money, she said. The areas that were a part of that include portions of North Main Street, Lady Street, Two Notch Road and Harden Street, Gentry said. The city and SCE&G agreed on the nonstandard service up front, so the annual contribution of SCE&G has been spent for the next 7.5 years, she said.

The penny as an opportunity

The $28 million spent on burying lines shows the city’s commitment to the effort, Gentry said.

She added the city would like to continue when possible, maybe partnering with Richland County penny sales tax transportation projects that are within the city.

“If the penny is going to be used for major streetscape type work, then we would certainly look at every opportunity that exists while work’s going on to include undergrounding,” Gentry said.

Numerous penny projects fall within the city limits, including the widening of North Main Street, the extension of Greene Street and Williams Street and Assembly Street’s grade-crossing railroad tracks removal, said Rob Perry, director of transportation for Richland County.

He also said a large number of the county’s 56 sidewalk and 87 bikeway projects are within the city limits.

Practicality plus aesthetics

Burying power lines can also be good for development in the city, said Fred Delk, of the Columbia Development Corp.

“As we have done street improvement projects that have included undergrounding those utilities, there is a great deal of business activity that follows,” Delk said.

A benefit to burying power line is having the space to plant shade trees in Columbia, a city that can be a heat island, Whitfield said.

In addition, trees help with air quality, reducing pollution and lowering storm water runoff, said Jack McKenzie, also on the Tree and Appearance Commission.

A formal undergrounding program in Columbia is “a massive piece of the puzzle that’s missing,” McKenzie said.

The city could also use the money in neighborhoods, as the city of Greenville does with its residential program, he suggested.

In a partnership with Duke Energy, Greenville established a program for homeowners to bury power lines after a severe ice storm in December 2005, according to the city’s website. The program pays up to $1,500 toward burying power lines for eligible residents, and homeowners must pay the remaining balance in advance.

The $1,500 covers most of the cost for those who want to bury lines at their homes, said Nancy Sue, a civil engineer with the city of Greenville. However that price can increase depending on how complicated someone’s yard is, she said. Some who have to pay extra average between $300 to $500, but others can pay even more, she said.

The idea to bury power lines is not a new concept for Columbia. It was even included in the 1904 plan for The Improvement of Columbia South Carolina, which was a report by a Boston architecture firm often referred to as the Kelsey Plan.

“The time when a maze of overhead wires for different purposes supported by a forest of bare poles rising from the sidewalks and curbings was considered the sign of a city’s prosperity is past,” the plan stated.

The Tree and Appearance Commission wants City Council to start a fund to bury the power lines so that it’s not still an issue in another 110 years, Whitfield said.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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