boston globe South

Going underground

Communities weigh high costs and variety of benefits of clearing the air by burying utility wires

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2010

DEDHAM - If it were up to Mike Butler, one of the key ways to begin a $5 million revitalization of Dedham Square would be to improve the view from Route 1 to High Street, a gateway to the historic commercial district.

That would mean burying the black tangles of utility wires that swing above several hundred feet of Eastern Avenue and removing four of seven utility poles. It’s a concept officials here have been discussing in a variety of incarnations for a few years.

“That’s a lot of wires,’’ said Butler, who chairs the town’s Board of Selectmen. “People have said it’s just too expensive. But we believe we’ll be rebuilding the road for a while, and while it and the sidewalks are open is the most cost-effective time to put the utilities underground.’’

Such masses of overhead wires are a familiar sight in communities everywhere. In fact, according to Scenic America, a nonprofit advocacy group, more than 3 million miles of electrical cables are strung across the country, coexisting with at least 180 million telephone and cable television lines. While nine out of 10 new subdivisions opt to bury utility lines to alleviate visual blight, according to statistics provided by the group, communities are slower to follow suit with existing lines, deterred by the prohibitive minimum cost of about $1 million per mile. Those that are considering such a move are weighing the aesthetics, safety, and other concerns of “undergrounding’’ against that bottom line.

A number of cities and towns in Massachusetts - including Bedford, Concord, Duxbury, Nantucket, Randolph, Wellesley, and Westwood - have moved some lines underground, and there are ongoing projects in communities including Chelmsford, Hingham, and North Andover, according to Undergrounding Newton, a task force created in 2005 that is exploring the feasibility of burying utility wires in that city.

In Hingham, a new conduit along North and Mill streets near Water Street and Access Road is expected to be operational by spring, and thousands of feet of wires for Comcast, the Hingham Municipal Light Plant, and Verizon telephone lines will go underground, eliminating the need for five utility poles on North Street between Station and Mill streets.

But such conversions ultimately mean the consumer pays more.

Michael Durand, a spokesman for the utility NStar, said the cost to move wires underground is borne by the residents of a particular town, per Chapter 166: Section 22 of Massachusetts General Law. That allows utility and telecommunications companies to collect a prescribed surcharge on the cost of undergrounding wires on individual residents’ bills, splitting the cost of such projects among all ratepayers.

“If Duxbury, for example, wants to do a project, it isn’t fair for neighbors in Marshfield or Kingston to have to pay more,’’ Durand said. So, the law calls for a surcharge of about 7 percent of the total cost of the project to be imposed on residents’ bills, he said, until the cost is paid in full.

There has not been a big call to move existing wires underground, he said. But for those who are going that route, the main reasons he hears have to do with aesthetics and reliability, Durand said. To most people, overhead wires and utility poles are ugly and prone to being downed by accidents or bad weather.

However, “an underground line is connected to an overhead line on a pole,’’ said Durand. “When there is an outage, an underground feed takes longer to fix because it is harder to find.’’

Repair, in many cases, involves digging back into the ground, or going into a manhole covered by snow, he said. It’s no easy task.

While NStar is willing to discuss undergrounding plans, said Durand, any project involves coordination of all utilities involved and means working with electrical, telephone, cable, and a town’s own municipal fire alarm at the same time. It’s at the very least one huge headache, he said.

“There really isn’t a large push to pursue this,’’ he said. “Occasionally, we get questions. Often those questions lead to a decision not to do it.’’

Such is the case in Norwood, which has its own municipal light company. Officials there installed underground electrical wires in the 1930s to illuminate street lights in the town’s center, General Manager John Carroll said. But when the question was raised two years ago at Town Meeting to put wires underground in South Norwood, residents looked at the numbers and rejected the idea, he said.

Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro said when a community wants to send lines underground, the first step is to figure out who owns the pole. It’s usually either Verizon, NStar, or National Grid, or all own it jointly, he said. Some poles have street lights that also have to be dealt with, and a budget has to be developed, he said.

Residents in Westwood agreed at two Town Meetings in recent years to fund two $1 million underground wire projects and install period light poles on Washington Street in the commercial area, and on High Street, according to Town Administrator Michael Jaillet. In each case, a surcharge was added to residents’ utility bills until the overall costs are recouped, Jaillet said.

“Now it looks beautiful if you drive down High and Washington streets,’’ he said. “But the point is, it’s not cheap.’’

In Dedham, Selectman Jim MacDonald agrees that undergrounding is optimum. But if the cost is prohibitive, he said, the town might instead consider moving poles - perhaps farther apart and farther from the curb - to improve the look of the area, as it did recently along Court Street.

Another selectman, Paul Reynolds, whose family-owned store, The Blue Bunny, is an anchor in Dedham Square, said undergounding “is one critical tool for economic revitalization.’’

But because of the initial investment, he said, it may need to be limited to areas that have high traffic by residents and visitors. By dropping lines and poles, he said residents could benefit from increased aesthetics, real estate values, and tourism in beautified areas as well as decreased accidents from pole strikes and utility interruption from storms and falling limbs.

“I think it’s time to push for more creative, holistic solutions for the most beautiful version of Dedham we, and future generations, deserve,’’ Reynolds said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at 

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

Globe South Letter

More municipal utilities would send wires underground

Dedham wires
Utility lines at Providence Highway and Eastern Avenue in Dedham,
where some residents want to bury them out of sight. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File)

January 28, 2010

Regarding “Going underground’’ (Globe South, Jan. 21), moving utility wires underground is affordable when done right.

In Concord - served by a municipal electric utility, not NStar (see - 40 percent of the electric network is already underground and another 1.5 miles of wires are moved underground each year.

The cost to electricity consumers? Effectively zero. The Concord utility spends $600,000 per mile to transfer wires underground, but charges 40 percent less than NStar for the same electricity.

NStar should develop undergrounding plans to improve aesthetics and service reliability in the communities it serves. But as a monopoly, NStar is unlikely to do this.

Residents tired of looking at bundles of unsightly wires and equipment on poles along their streets can sign the petition at to support legislation to allow new municipal utilities in Massachusetts (which are not possible now because of obsolete language in our century-old state law).

If a town can replace NStar with a municipal utility, NStar will feel the pressure and finally have a serious incentive to underground its wires as municipal utilities do.

Patrick Mehr
Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice