Winter Park should scrap its plan to bury all of its electric system. Such a massive undertaking would be a costly overreaction to the “bad old days” of Progress Energy and would be hard to justify when limited city funds are needed for other purposes. The city should abandon the goal of burying the entire system, and instead bury only selected circuits as may be proposed from time to time by the city’s electric director.
The cost of undergrounding the entire system would be staggering. Winter Park estimated the cost of burying the first nine miles of mainline feeders at $1.2 million per mile, but the actual cost exceeded that. Burying power lines is so expensive in urban areas that most cities restrict this practice to critical feeder circuits. Winter Park has projected the cost of burying the whole system at $67 million, but this is likely too low in light of the cost overruns experienced on the circuits buried since 2007.
If Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman were building Winter Park today, they would probably place all power lines underground. But to retrofit an established, century-old city in this manner strikes me as unnecessary, impractical and a poor use of taxpayers’ money.
When residents voted to create a municipal power system in 2003, they also expressed support for burying the system to improve its reliability. No surprise there. They were reeling from years of poor service from Progress Energy and desperate for greater reliability. But that was then.
Winter Park has since buried 8 miles of critical feeder circuits, greatly improving the system’s reliability. And wise management by Director Jerry Warren has enhanced the reliability of the system’s overhead circuits, too. By replacing old poles and wires before they fail, and by trimming vegetation, Mr. Warren has proven that power lines don’t have to be underground to be reliable. As a result, public support for burying power lines has waned, as evidenced by the decline in interest in the city’s PLUG-IN cost-sharing program.
Beginning in 2015, the electric system expects to earn $2.8 million annually in net revenue. Rather than spend a lot of this money each year burying ever-smaller circuits serving ever-fewer residents, the city should instead spend it on general electric-system maintenance – and on reducing electricity rates, or on funding other city services to ease pressure on the property tax. Undergrounding has a point of diminishing returns – you get a big bang for your buck on major circuits but not on smaller ones. Many municipal-power cities have lower property-tax rates because they fund various city services with electricity revenues. Such a policy in Winter Park could help to preserve historic homes, by reducing the city’s temptation to allow demolitions for McMansions.
Most municipal-power cities have concluded that burying major feeders while leaving other circuits overhead offers an acceptable balance of cost, reliability and aesthetics. And this policy leaves the cities with money to spend on other needs. Surely there are better ways to spend that $67 million in Winter Park.
If residents were asked today, I suspect most would vote for cheaper electricity – or a new source of money for city services – rather than for an all-underground electric system.
The city could probably achieve 75 percent of the benefits promised in the all-underground plan by burying only 50 percent of the system’s wire miles. And foregoing the other 50 percent would free millions of dollars for other important projects and services. Look around the United States. If all-underground systems are such a great idea, why are so few cities building them?
— Barrett M. Williams
9001 Pine Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63144
Mr. Williams is a former Winter Park resident who has worked in several municipal governments.