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Power lines over the Midtown Greenway? A classic case of destroying a place to save it

Remember Aesop's fable about the foolish couple who killed the goose that laid golden eggs? Xcel Energy apparently forgot to reread the tale before launching a plan to run a high-voltage power line over the rim of the Midtown Greenway in south Minneapolis. Like the fable, Xcel's plan is layered in irony and fraught with unintended consequences.

Here's hoping that the City Council on Friday can put the brakes on the project long enough for the electric utility and its state regulators to take a deep breath and consider a better solution.

The good part about this particular story is that the Midtown neighborhoods are in the midst of revival. When the recession ends, Xcel expects more growth in a part of the city that already uses more power than its aging grid can handle. It needs more service.

But Midtown owes its success largely to the greenway itself, a remarkable bike trail and linear park carved out of an old railroad trench. Hundreds of new homes and offices have been built along the 5.5-mile greenway in recent years, and more are anticipated. For Xcel to run a high-voltage line over the greenway's edge figures to ruin the very attraction responsible for the area's revival.

This is more than a little crazy. A better idea would have been to bury the new line beneath Lake Street (which runs parallel to the greenway) during the street's recent reconstruction. Apparently Xcel wasn't interested at the time.

Another alternative
Now the city's preferred alternative is to bury the line beneath East 28th Street. Xcel complains that going underground would double the project's $15 million cost, and suggests obliquely that the extra burden might be borne by the neighborhood's ratepayers, or perhaps the city's.

It's clear that underground lines cost more, both to install and maintain. But when Xcel adds service to a new subdivision on the Twin Cities edge, the cost is laid off against the entire rate base. There's no good reason the cost of updating service in a city neighborhood shouldn't be handled in the same way – especially when a regional asset like Midtown Greenway is involved.

Indeed, a trend toward infill development will cause similar conflicts in the future as older neighborhoods add demand and require upgraded service. Infill development carries many social, environmental and economic benefits to a metropolitan region. Ratepayers in those neighborhoods shouldn't be penalized with higher rates than those charged to ratepayers on the suburban fringe.

Three open houses held
Xcel doesn't need Minneapolis' official blessing to proceed with its application to the Public Utilities Commission for an overhead line. But it has promised to involve neighborhood residents and city officials in forging a final design. To that end, it has held three open houses on the issue, pointing out that this line would provide power to an additional 7,500 homes and that the 1.25-mile project — running roughly between Hiawatha Avenue and Interstate Hwy. 35W — is part of a larger effort to upgrade service to south Minneapolis.

"We'll consider input about issues such as aesthetics and recreation in the design and location of the infrastructure and we'll offer alternatives for consideration," Judy Poferl, Xcel's regional vice president, said last fall in launching the project.

But Xcel has failed to convince the neighborhoods or City Hall that going overhead is the best alternative. The Midtown Greenway Coalition has urged Xcel to look more closely at conservation measures. And the City Council's Health, Energy and Environment Committee (PDF) has concluded that an overhead line would be incompatible with the character of the greenway and its environs.

 "A buried line makes more sense in this kind of urban environment," said Council Member Robert Lilligren.

The county's interest
Perhaps more than any party, Hennepin County has an interest in the issue's outcome. The county's railroad authority owns the greenway and its public-works department recently finished rebuilding nearby Lake Street.

In opposing the overhead line, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin points out the greenway's status as a historic district and a regional recreation asset. "We have several avenues to explore," he said. "In the end it may work out that going underground is the only alternative that works for them – and that's what we hope happens."

The city, county, state and federal governments have invested millions of dollars in the greenway corridor. Private interests have responded in kind. All have a big stake in protecting their investments. The greenway has boosted a part of the city that's still a long way from reaching full potential. Why kill the goose just as the golden eggs have begun to appear?

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Comments (7)

Thank you Steve! I couldn't have said it better myself. I rode the Greenway's bike trail all summer last year, to get to work. I was amazed to see all the development that has taken place along that ditch. Who would have thought that a bike path along an old railroad line would spur so much development? Putting an above-ground high-power line along the Greenway would be as dumb as putting one along Minnehaha Parkway.

A few points/questions...1) New developments do pay for utility extensions; these costs are reflected in the price of the lots that are developed. 2) If the power line was there in advance of the Greenway, would it have diminished the current success of the Greenway? The City is full of utility poles that most people soon forget are even there. 3) I do not think that the Greenway rises to the status of regional asset. 4) If Hennepin County decides to put light rail in that trench, as is already being considered, it will require electrical infrastructure.

Unchecked growth has a special and scary name: cancer.

What is missing is any consideration whatsoever on how to check the destructive growth of greenhouse gas use. Xcel, as usual, favors huge centralized projects instead of smaller decentralized or more ecological projects. Nobody is even considering a smaller project involving photo-voltaic solar panels in the area to be served. While this is an expensive fix, compared to the cost of dirty coal for the projected use, it would certainly be possible to increase capacity marginally for the near term. And it is almost universally predicted that the next generation of p-v panels to become commercial in 2 or 3 years will produce electricity at a CHEAPER rate than dirty coal or scarce natural gas.

This blight on the neighborhood in unforgivable. Xcel has certainly not been thinking ahead. They weren't thinking ahead about buried cables when Lake Street was torn up last year. They aren't thinking ahead in terms of greenhouse gases. They aren't thinking ahead about their own role in the long-term ecological development along the Greenway. Shame on them!

Look at ethe "bright side" (pun intended) - the security lights they can run off that grid will shine a nice white light on the criminals there.

At least they were there last summer...

Maybe the simple answer would be to place a nuclear power plant on the Hiawatha side of the greenway. There's already that environmentally stressed land down that way steming form agricultural chemicals so what difference whould it make ? Or maybe better move some Xcel officals and their families down there along the Greenway and tap the pure energy coming from their minds and move us into a better future that way. This discussion is so Cheneanian it's obsurd. Can't Xcel say "We screwed up !" Or maybe play out the opening scenes from the Simpsons and do the repetition think on the chalkboard with the Xcel rep writing - Oh Well you fill in the blank.

Come on, Xcel, you're saying that this project is "needed" based on the South Mpls. Load Serving Study, and yet you're also saying that it's not completed yet AND you won't produce it. OK, so which is it? Are you making up the "need" claim based on a study that does not exist, or are proposing a project that is not justified based on the study that does exist that you're not producing? It seems it's binary -- which is it? Then again, maybe, as CEO Dick Kelly says, use had dropped at least 3% so your forecasts are all off. How to figure it out? Let's look at the load numbers over the last decade, or better, 20 years, and let's look at what it takes to upgrade the local distribution system to address your power quality problems (new transmission won't solve an aging distribution system problem). Once that's done, where are we? Undergrounding should be a no-brainer... let's see an itemization of cost and see if it's reasonable or if you're inflating it. Costs have come down lately, as you know...

I am really glad this story highlights the differential method in which suburban greenfield development is subsidized versus the way infill developments are charged based on an unfair ratio.

Its not surprising then, that it is so attractive to do development on the fringe when we build the highways provide the utilities and then sit around and wait for those with the means to buy in at the reduced costs, and benefit from escaping the problems of the Central City which they leave behind.