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Going underground

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


Councilman Mitch Harper is right.

He has proposed studying the cost of burying Fort Wayne’s utility wires, and it is time, right now, while memories are fresh, to give the idea our fullest consideration.

We might, however, give it another twist: it is time to creatively conjure a plan to protect our city from another such disaster.

For those of you who remember the ice storm a few Christmas´ back, this is a no brainer. For those who have lost power because a squirrel gnawed through a line, this is a no brainer. For those of you who are sweltering in a dark home, this is a no brainer. Let us set our minds to finding a way to protect our sources of power from another catastrophe.

Let us, for a variety of reasons, create a gradual plan to going underground with the majority, if not all of our utility wires.

To carry Mitch´s proposal a step further, it is time to spend devise a plan protect our power supply, as well as our homes and businesses.

This should not be an attack on Indiana Michigan or AEP; as one friend said, Ï love my electricity and AEP should be our partner in this. They have much to gain, as well. This project should be about devising and executing a work plan to protect the power that runs our factories, lights our homes, cooks our food, lights our schools and keeps the kids out of our hair with TV and computers.

Mitch is right and Mayor Henry should get right behind this and take the lead. City council should work with county council to plan for our future. This is nothing short of how we assessed the community´s vulnerability to flooding in the 1980s and took steps to mitigate that threat.

You have seen the cost to all of us in real terms throughout Fort Wayne. The losses range from business down time to freezers full of ruined food and everything in between. It is a health matter, a matter of public safety and certainly an economic survival question.

During that Christmas power disaster of 2008, homes suffered tens of thousands in damage when the pipes gave up and burst in upstairs bathrooms, taking down walls, buckling beautiful oak floors and flooding furnaces, water heaters, mancaves and finished basements. Hotels and motels were the only big winners selling rooms to the dislocated.

Now there are those who will immediately flog studies that show burying lines are ten times more expensive than stringing them in the air. Doubtful. Those statistics have been used for years to avoid the obvious: wires strung above ground are dangerous for man, beast, public safety and the economy. Those statistics do not take into account your personal and business losses from the downed lines, or the cost to a community when a major percentage of factories, shops and offices are idled. They don´t take into consideration those buckled floors or freezers full of rotting meat. They don´t take into consideration the cost of the occasional electrocution, cars vs. pole collisions, the individual outages, or the cost of those chainsaw marauders who cut an ugly swath through neighborhoods scalping ¨your¨ trees. There are many other costs that are not taken into account when cost of burying is compared to the cost of continuing to string overhead.

But, that, too, is a bow to a false argument. Most new suburban additions require that power lines are buried. In most new neighborhoods the lines are already underground. Developers know that buried lines are safer and more reliable, and the new addition, where they are trying hard to sell lots and spec houses, is much more aesthetically pleasing.

The wires that need to be buried run along Taylor, Illinois, Covington and Lake, and they run down the alleys of older neighborhoods, such as mine.

So, Mitch is right. Time to conjure a solution to this old problem. He will have friends on council, namely John Shoaff, Tom Smith and others who also have envisioned a city where the wires are protected in underground conduit safe from tumbling trees, high winds, ice and heavy snow, not to mention that occasional squirrel.

We are not talking about a comparison of one method versus the other, we are talking about a way to insure our community´s future from the sort of disaster we are currently enduring and those we have endured a dozen times before in the past twenty years. That is leadership.

Sadly, this is an economic development project that is not as sexy as a new industrial park, so the tendency will be to move on, forget and do nothing. But resolving this problem is more important to the future of the city. If someday Fort Wayne can boast that even land hurricanes of the sort suffered last week will not slow us down, will not cut our source of productive energy, then we certainly have a leg up on every other community. Uninterrupted power. We shrug off disasters.

There are other advantages to burying lines, principle among them the aesthetics of boulevards and neighborhoods cleared of what are the most unsightly of industrialization´s features. Drive down most any major street in Fort Wayne and you will see a clutter of wires that seem to reach in every direction like menacing kudzu. Anyone who has been to any German city will understand how much more pleasing it is to live in a town without power lines tangling overhead. Anyone who has driven Sycamore Hills Drive can learn the same truism without packing their bags. It is what we should expect for ourselves and our city.

Prohibatively high cost will be thrown on the table as a way to trump the discussion. I can´t figure out why. Burying lines is simply good for Fort Wayne. We have been over that. It also puts people to work on a project that is a win-win for the city and will pay dividends for years and years to come. Would it be better to sip a nice cup of coffee or down a cold beer while watching CNN report some other city´s disaster clean up…and be in a position to help them? Wouldn´t it be better to come out of the basement to find the power is still on?

Mitch Harper is right. The question is how to make Fort Wayne less vulnerable to the weather. Without doubt, another storm is on the way, it is only a matter of time.
The question is how to protect our power supply most efficiently, most flexibly and with the least expense. We are a smart, savvy and creative community. This is something we can do.

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