Surely Long Island residents would rather have new high-voltage power lines placed underground than on roadside poles. The huge steel replacement poles and burly lines are considered ugly, and dangerous to drivers who crash into them. And while burying lines doesn’t mean an end to power outages, it does mean fewer of them.
But estimates are that it would cost between $20 billion and $30 billion to bury all the existing lines on Long Island. That’s about $20,000 to $30,000 per household, not a charge anyone wants to see on their next electric bill.
That’s why the Long Island Power Authority and PSEG won’t pay to bury the utility’s high-voltage transmission lines that are often carried on massive 80-foot tall steel poles that measure nine feet around.
But in Eastport, the utility now says it will cough up as much as $13.5 million to bury lines and remove 24 steel poles it erected on Eastport Manor Road in 2017. The Town of Brookhaven, which sued to get them buried, dropped the suit in return for the deal.
Rather than setting a precedent for future communities to make similar demand, though, LIPA says it’s using the lessons it learned in the Eastport battle to create better procedures that can soften these confrontations and prevent such costly losses in the future.
LIPA officials still say they were correct to put the Eastport lines aboveground, since the community would not pay to bury them. Where it was wrong, in Eastport and other communities, LIPA says, was in the process.
There wasn’t enough community outreach about new installations. There hadn’t been a clear, understandable process laid out about how it’s decided whether to put lines above or underground, nor a formal procedure for the community to respond. And not enough had been done to explain its decisions publicly and in writing.
Now, LIPA officials say, they have a new process in place.
The utility has adopted a formal policy for evaluating line burial similar to the one drawn up by the Public Service Commission and used in the rest of the state. The policy highlights areas where the utility must carefully analyze the costs and benefits of potential burial of big poles and heavy lines: like historic sites, landmarks, state and federal parks, central business districts and dense residential subdivisions.
It also names a set of areas that merit LIPA doing due diligence on whether burial makes sense, but are far less likely to qualify. Village and town parks, cemeteries, areas of scenic beauty and less-dense residential areas are a few of the items on that long list.
There will still be plenty of room for debate, as the policy lays out concerns like the scenic and environmental effects of poles and lines but doesn’t define any metrics to determine how much scenic and environmental effect it takes to justify LIPA paying for burial. In every situation, the community will be told how much it costs, and can agree to pay for underground lines if LIPA won’t.
These new processes, which are clearly the ones LIPA should have adopted years ago, should be a big improvement on a very expensive and contentious misfire. — The editorial board