What Goes Up Must Come Down
Every year around summer's end -- that is, budget time -- ideas bubble up to the top of the political stockpot, get tasted by council and community, are pronounced underdone, and then get thrown back into the stew. One such tidbit from last year's budget cycle, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's proposal to start burying Austin Energy power lines, may be nearly ready to serve.
At third reading (i.e., the last minute) of the 1999-2000 budget ordinance, Goodman proposed an amendment to allocate $2.5 million of Austin Energy's ample reserves to convert overhead utilities to underground at three specific pilot-project locations, including the intersection of Burnet and North Loop, where the city was already doing roadway improvements and tearing up the street. This did not go over all that well with Goodman's fellow council members at the time, especially considering that much of the last budget cycle was taken up with debate over using Austin Energy funds for non-utility purposes.
So AE director Chuck Manning was instead sent forth to prepare a feasibility study for an ongoing program of underground conversions, which led to a November memo that has yet to find its way, apparently, to the desks of Goodman and other council members. In it, the utility notes that "conversion costs are a significant factor."
That means it's too expensive to do what many neighborhoods would like: commit to burying all overhead utilities. In residential areas, AE estimates the costs to run between $50 and $140 per foot (that is, up to $750,000 a mile); costs in commercial areas, especially downtown, could run as high as $400 a foot. "The cost associated with a wholesale conversion from overhead to underground [can be] three to four times the net worth of the entire utility," Manning's memo says. "Therefore, judicious selection of conversion projects is necessary to effectively manage costs." This was one of the cavils about Goodman's original proposal -- that, while tying conversions in with existing road projects is undeniably a good idea, the council and city staff would prefer a set process for prioritizing where burying lines would be good for both the neighborhood and for Austin Energy. (Underground lines are, naturally, more reliable, since they can't be savaged by wayward tree limbs, squirrels, or intoxicated frat boys driving into poles, and some big-deal industrial customers are willing to pay for AE to bury the lines serving their plants.)
The utility envisions creating a matrix to rate potential projects, as part of the anticipated planning of Smart Growth corridors, involving the community, city staff, and other utilities using overhead service. (Nothing, after all, stops Southwestern Bell or Time Warner from using overhead lines even if AE buries the electric service.) Manning's memo envisions that the follow-up to outline and schedule individual projects would "rely heavily on the neighborhood planning process. Serious consideration of the community's input will be given as conversion sites are recommended by Austin Energy." And thus power flows in our council-manager government; what started out as a neighborhood initiative, carried by the famously neighborhood-friendly Goodman, has become a staff program. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it will create one more potential for synapse failure as the city seeks to respond to and implement neighborhood wishes and plans, which was what Goodman, judging from her comments back in September, was trying to avoid. Austin Energy says that it plans to introduce the utility-conversion program as part of its proposed budget for fiscal 2001, on which work will begin this spring. The budget will be formally transmitted by City Manager Jesus Garza in July.