Utility: Wasillans should pay price for running new power line underground

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Some laughed when Wasilla officials explained their opposition to a high-voltage transmission line by talking up the "scenic viewshed" of the Parks Highway.

Nobody's laughing now.

In a pivotal 5-1 vote Tuesday night, Wasilla's planning commission required Matanuska Electric Association bury the line as part of a permit the Palmer-based electric cooperative needs to build a new, 115-kilovolt transmission line on the city's eastern flank.

MEA officials put the cost of burying the line at $40 million, quadruple their aboveground estimate.

They want the price tag for the highly unusual request to bury high-voltage cable to be borne by a citywide surcharge area.

"I'm gonna tell them cost-causer, cost-payer," MEA general manager Joe Griffith said minutes after Tuesday night's vote at Wasilla City Hall.

Griffith notified the Regulatory Commission of Alaska Wednesday morning that he planned to file a tariff case for the Wasilla surcharge by the end of September, an MEA spokesman said.

The new transmission line will accommodate Wasilla's growth and build redundancy into the grid, co-op officials say. A new generation plant is coming online at Eklutna. The new transmission network will link existing lines at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center with the Herning substation near downtown Wasilla.

MEA's preferred powerline route involved stringing 115-kilovolt transmission lines between 80- to 100-foot towers, mostly along the Parks Highway where more than 30,000 drivers every day pass sweeping views of Pioneer Peak and adjacent Chugach mountains.

Numerous business and property owners spoke out against the preferred plan at several city hearings since May. Representatives from Kendall Ford and Creekside Plaza - both located along the proposed route - testified to potential business declines to come.

Before Tuesday's vote, however, Wasilla resident Ken Ray told the planning commission that higher electric rates send the wrong message for a city trying to grow.

"People living up Lucille Street will never see these powerlines," Ray said, referring to a two-lane artery on the west side of town. "But if the city chooses to require undergrounding, they may end up paying those costs."

Though sparsely attended, Tuesday night's meeting had a history-making feel.

Wasilla, a city that plunked a Fred Meyer store on its namesake lake, grew through the last few decades with a pro-business stance that sprinkled the Parks Highway with car dealers, big box stores and strip malls.

But these days, several planning commissioners and residents said, the city is trying to improve its appearance as required by land-use codes and other requirements in Wasilla's comprehensive plan, which also prioritizes commercial development.

Commissioner Jessica Dean pitted the "monster poles" of the new line against the city's commitment to improving the aesthetics of Wasilla to lure both tourists and permanent residents.

Bloggers may have thought they were supporting the line when they mocked the city's fight against the poles by saying, "'Wasilla is already a blight. What would adding powerlines do to it?'" Dean said. "They're really only strengthening the case for why they should not go through town."

Planning commissioner Jesse Sumner cast the lone vote against the permit. Sumner also made a motion that, before taking up the underground line vote, the commission first weigh in on MEA's aboveground route; that motion died for lack of a second.

The commission agreed to remove what members called an onerous requirement MEA install the underground line in a "utilidor" or tunnel that could have made the project more costly yet.

In addition to the Parks Highway alignment, MEA proposed several alternative routes including a 12.1-mile line through the farms and homes of Fairview Loop Road at an estimated cost of nearly $14 million and a $12.7-mile line along Bogard Road at a cost of nearly $15 million.

Of 132 comments MEA got this year on the Wasilla line, just 14 opposed the route. Sixty-six supported it. Fifty-five people made other comments on a range of topics including alternate routes, according to MEA spokesman Kevin Brown.

Drivers, residents, and businesses on the way into Wasilla could still see tall transmission towers.

Some three miles of the 6-mile powerline route fall outside city limits on Mat-Su Borough property. The borough has no permitting authority and therefore no say whether the line gets buried or not.

MEA expects to need a tower every 400 to 600 feet, or 10 to 12 poles per mile, Brown said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.