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Editorial: Who should pay to bury power lines?

Power lines seen at sunrise in Melville on

Power lines seen at sunrise in Melville on Jan. 11, 2013. Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

For years on Long Island, and particularly after superstorm Sandy, there has been a clamor to bury power lines. The instinct is understandable, but studies show that the only legitimate justification is aesthetics. The cost of burying lines that could go overhead is too high, and the reliability of underground lines is mixed.

Buried lines fare better in storms because they don't get hit by trees. But when they do fail, they take 60 percent longer to repair because they have to be dug up. Underground lines also corrode more easily and do not generally last as long as overhead ones.

These facts are particularly important now because there is an outcry in East Hampton and Port Washington that new overhead power lines ought to go underground -- and demands that PSEG Long Island bear at least half the additional cost. The rationale of vocal residents and officials in both places is the notion that when a similar controversy erupted in Southampton in 2008, the Long Island Power Authority paid about half the cost of burying lines it had first planned to string overhead.

That simply isn't true.

There was never a plan to put all nine miles of Southampton lines overhead, and town residents were required to pay for the burial of every foot originally meant to go aboveground. LIPA's original Southampton plan was to put 55 percent of the lines underground and 45 percent overhead. That's what made sense, according to the final environmental impact statement on the project, reported in the minutes of LIPA's February 2008 meeting. The study said the lines should go overhead along much of the route where utility poles already existed. New poles would have been 13 feet taller than old ones, but would not have cluttered previously unspoiled views. The stretch where the study determined the lines should be buried did not have poles and included areas protected because of their historical significance and residential nature.

To end the controversy, the Town of Southampton agreed to have affected residents pay the whole cost of burying lines through an assessment added to power bills. LIPA had wanted the town to collect the fee and repay the power authority, but it lost that battle. and sure enough, many residents reneged. Late last year, LIPA sued the town for more than $200,000 owed from almost 3,000 customers who did not pay three years of surcharges.

To avoid this confusion and controversy, LIPA and PSEG need to have fixed and clear criteria for when they put lines underground. Doing this entirely case by case only creates the appearance that the process is arbitrary and political.

The Long Island electrical system is, in general, an overhead system. When it makes sense to bury lines to preserve unspoiled vistas, prevent specific dangers, or for any reason related to system reliability, all ratepayers islandwide should share the cost. When studies say the lines should go overhead and residents in particular areas disagree, those residents should pay the costs.

And they should pay through tax bills, not their power bills, so the municipality is on the hook if ratepayers get a case of buyer's remorse.