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Cost factors charge up Wauwatosa power-line talks

Nov. 14, 2012

The city last week modified its recommendation on a power-line route, facing an increasingly clear reality that cost will count.

"We felt that if the cost was too high, it's less likely that the (Public Service Commission) would actually recommend it," said City Attorney Alan Kesner.

While Kesner and a majority of Common Council members are committed to an underground route that starts along Walnut Road, bitterness remains among residents most affected by the plan.

"They want to put this route through the most residentially populated alternative that's out there," said Jenny Wisniewski, a Walnut Road resident whose house is near the proposed connection point.

Pricing the options

The state Public Service Commission is taking testimony on a proposed power line to be built by American Transmission Corp. It will connect a power line that cuts north to south along Wauwatosa's western edge to a new substation that will provide consistent power to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center.

The PSC will decide on a route, and the Common Council spent the summer anguishing over a recommendation on how to preserve its landscape and neighborhoods while still transferring the power from the line that roughly follows 120th Street, to the substation, a distance of a little less than 3 miles east.

The city's first suggestion was to tap the power line at 120th and Walnut, and take the power line underground all the way to the substation.

The cost? ATC put it at $38 million for two cables; about $28 million for one.

ATC's preferred route, all overhead on latticework towers, tapping the power source on Underwood Parkway, and following the parkway and county bike corridors, would cost less than $7 million.

The Common Council, meeting as a Committee of the Whole last week, reasserted its desire for an all-underground route, but endorsed a strong second choice that would allow some overhead lines, along the less-inhabited stretches of Walnut east of 113th Street, and down Mayfair Road, before diving again for a stretch along Watertown Plank.

The cost of that option is put at about $21 million to $24 million.

Varying impacts

The testimony before the PSC, posted online, reads like a trial in slow motion. It is by turns technical, passionate, and boilerplate, and includes dry legal interviews, hand-scrawled notes, charts, pictures and rebuttals.

Jerry Mendl, a consultant hired by the city, lays out in his testimony the pros and cons of the city-endorsed route, along Walnut Road, and the Underwood Parkway route, and recommends changes to preliminary designs.

On Walnut Road, where the new power line taps the existing line, and dives underground, he recommends fewer "drop structures," for a lower profile, and shielding them with visual barriers and greenery.

He also suggests moving the power line from along the side of the road, which would sacrifice many mature trees, to the center of the road, which would save them all. He says the route, which further along may become an overhead line, would devalue property slated for development. And he and others identify problems including construction and engineering challenges.

An Underwood Parkway overhead route would cost many trees, interfere with an Underwood Creek restoration program, and be an eyesore to the residents on the south side of the parkway.

Putting the cables underground along the greenery of the parkway, Mendl testifies, would negate the visual problem, but would require the removal of vegetation, and "change the soil, drainage and thermal characteristics over a continuous strip, which is particularly disruptive when crossing wetland and natural areas."

Mendl says the best remedy for these problems is to choose another route.

Resident-friendly option

Wisniewski and other residents of Walnut have little patience for those who would preserve a landscape over the disruption of their daily lives.

"As you know, my husband and I live adjacent to the ATC property at 120th and Walnut Road," wrote Mary Rose Armstrong, in letter to the council. "This neighborhood has a significant stake in the process - and no, we don't want these lines in our back yards. But we are not trying to push this into the back (or front) yards of our neighbors on Underwood Creek Parkway."

For her, a solution would be a hybrid, underground/overhead route that would follow Underwood Parkway and the bike paths, staying close to ATC's original preferred route - and very much like the one criticized by Mendl.

But it has the advantage of costing less than the city option - $15.7 million to $19.3 million, Armstrong says - making it that much more attractive to the PSC.

Kesner says one of the PSC's mandates is to minimize environmental impact, and the issues of the Underwood Parkway route are many. He said he believes the city's route is competitive.

"Because of the impact, and the status of the proceeding at this point, we thought this is the one that's probably most likely for success," Kesner said.

Alderwoman Cheryl Berdan, whose 7th District includes the Walnut Road residents, said the process has been ugly.

"I don't think we're being fair to our constituents," she said, before the modification vote at the Committee of the Whole. "We're told we have to take this one because we have to take something or we get something that we don't want, and we're backed into a corner. And I don't like being backed into a corner, so I'm voting against this."

In the end, it may not matter what the city endorses; the PSC will do what it wants to do, or feels it has to do. But for Wisniewski and Armstrong, who say the city's route is still unrealistically expensive and would put their homes in the thick of it, Wauwatosa has not looked out for their interests.

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