After a year and a half of local debate, protest and consenus-building, and considerable expense to Wauwatosa, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Friday swiftly approved a plan to construct overhead power lines leading onto the County Grounds.
Wauwatosa had joined with Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee and many other parties to oppose any overhead lines in the city.
Mayor Kathy Ehley called the decision "heartbreaking" and decried the speed with which the commissioners acted on the it and their seeming lack of consideration for any of the local arguments against it.
"I was following the tweets on the hearing," Ehley said, "and I was shocked at how fast they moved through this agenda item."
"It is just so disheartening," Ehley said. "After all the time and effort so many people put in, the public, the neighbors, all the stakeholders, to build a consensus. And it was all just dismissed. It's heartbreaking."
Public Service Commissioners Phil Montgomery (chairman), Eric Callisto and Ellen Nowak endorsed transmission towers for the length of a western route from 120th Street up Underwood Creek Parkway, across Mayfair Road and onto the County Grounds.
A second line from the south will go overhead immediately past Milwaukee Montessori School, which had vehemently opposed the plan, and continue north through residential areas in Wauwatosa.
The commission left some doubt as to where, exactly, that line would be buried for some distance as it approaches the Regional Medical Center.
Economic arguments carry no weight
Neighbors and open space advocates had vigorously opposed taking parkland along Underwood Creek, including enviromentally valuable wetlands.
But City Attorney Alan Kesner said going into hearings last fall that the city's strongest arguments, along with Milwaukee County and the business community, were economic ones.
Along with possible loss of residential property values near the lines in the neighborhoods surrounding the parkway, the local parties have deep concerns about potential commercial properties on the County Grounds.
Under the original route plan, the towering lines were to pass immediately north of the planned ABB Group development on Innovation Campus, which is up for final approval Tuesday by the Common Council.
The final route is still uncertain but may be moved to the south along Watertown Plank Road.
There are six more private development sites on the market on Innovation Campus, UWM's own proposed Engineering Center, and Mandel Group's proposed residential development immediately to the north.
The western line would also pass over an area just west of Highway 45 that is on the table as prime development space. During the Zoo Interchange Rebuild Project, Swan Boulevard will be rerouted through the remainder of the Northwest Quadrant of the County Grounds.
That zone currently is home to Milwaukee County's decrepit Greenhouse Center, Fleet Services garages, and the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department's Patrol Division headquarters.
With Swan Boulevard coming through the middle of it at grade and meeting Watertown Plank Road directly across from the entrance to the Research Park, that zone is being eyed as possibly the most valuable real estate in the region.
Kesner and outside attorneys hired by the city put together arguments showing the long-term impact of having overhead power lines disrupting and actually eating up development space and said the loss of revenue to the city, county and state would far surpass the additional cost of underground lines.
Commission considers only engineering issues
But the PSC, in its final decision, barely addressed any of those considerations.
"Siting was challenging in this case," said Callisto, "and the commission appropriately balanced economic, engineering, environmental, and community concerns to get to a good result."
In a press release, the commission said its "routing decisions favored above-ground transmission options when possible in an effort to protect ratepayers from undue costs of undergrounding. The commissioners agreed that undergrounding is appropriate in very limited situations, generally to address technical or engineering concerns."
Commissioner Nowak said that "it must be technically necessary for the line to be undergrounded, consistent with commission precedent which states that 'underground construction is not a viable transmission option unless engineering considerations require it or circumstances leave no other reasonable option available.'"
The total cost of the approved plan, to be built by American Transmission Co., is projected at $34 million, with $18 million of that being the cost of the overhead lines alone, the rest being for a new substation plus transmission and certification costs.
The PSC calculated the cost of all-underground lines, as proposed by the local parties, to be $35 million to $50 million higher.
While there is no direct route of appeal to a PSC decision, the Journal Sentinel's Thomas Content reported that Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy, representing the Milwaukee Montessori School neighborhood, is already planning to convene a meeting of the local parties to discuss possible legal actions challenging the decision.