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City Advances Walnut Road Power Line Route to PSC

After months of debate, issue is still contentious and council cannot come out with a unanimous voice, settling for an 11-4 decision.

Wauwatosa will join Milwaukee County and other parties in recommending an underground route that would run in part down residential Walnut Road for one of two new power lines to supply growing County Grounds institutions.

On an 11-4, vote Tuesday night, the Common Council approved the selection as the preferred route to be presented to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC), which has final say on where the new routes will go and how they will be installed – above or below ground.

The lines will be built by American Transmission Co. (ATC) for We Energies, supplier of the power. ATC, as the applicant, has already begun testimony before the PSC. Wauwatosa and other "intervenors" opposed to the installations being proposed by ATC will open testimony Oct. 15.

With less than a month left to prepare for that testimony, City Attorney Alan Kesner wanted a decision no later than Tuesday – in fact, he's been wanting a decision since June, when he first recommended the modified Walnut Road layout, with lines in under the street instead of under residents' front yards.

Kesner had been saying for months that, strategically, the city's position before the PSC would be hampered if it did not come in with a single preferred choice of routes, in consensus with other parties, principally Milwaukee County.

Entering testimony with no preferred solution, multiple choices, or without agreement with the other intervening parties, he has said, and repeated again Tuesday, would simply invite the PSC to take the lowest-cost option – which would certainly involve overhead lines, possibly through both parklands and important economic development zones.

The least-cost alternative proposed by ATC would route overhead lines along more than a mile of Underwood Creek Parkway and then through the middle of a large county parcel that will be opened up for development by the Zoo Interchange project.

'No' to both routes from district representatives

By Tuesday night, Kesner and several outspoken aldermen supporting him had clearly persuaded a majority on the council that a choice had to made and made now, and that the Walnut Road was the only viable choice.

Still, not all were convinced.

The cheapest installation, overhead from Underwood Creek Parkway, would cost $6.7 million. The all-underground route beginning on Walnut Road is now estimated at roughly quadruple that, between $24.9 million and $28.6 million.

Alds. Cheryl Berdan and Don Birschel of the 7th District, who represent residents in neighborhoods along both alternate routes, made it clear they would never vote for either, and they didn't.

"I voted against it in committee, and I'll vote against it tonight," Berdan began.

Berdan said she could not bring herself to impose a power line on either group and told her colleagues and Kesner she remained unconvinced that all other options had been fully explored.

She said she believed the city's insistence on an expensive all-underground route, the full and final costs of which were still uncertain, would itself invite the PSC to choose the less costly option.

"Is consensus important? Possibly," Berdan said. "But we're being backed into a corner, and we don't even know the costs."

Birschel, who has worked with engineer Willie Gonwa of Wauwatosa to independently develop other route alternatives, said he too believed the all-underground Walnut Road route was too expensive and still too intrusive.

"When all is said and done," Birschel said, "and they put it overhead through the parkway, will they say, 'Well, we tried...'?"

Birschel said his preference would be to present a number of options – as many as four – for the PSC's consideration, giving a range of costs and options for installation.

If the council could not bring itself to do that, he said, he would prefer it make no single recommendation at all.

Alternatives that have already been rejected

Ald. Jill Organ, herself a civil engineer, said she wasn't supportive of either alternative on the table and still thought that the best and most obvious route ought to be the one straight down Watertown Plank Road to the County Grounds power plant.

Kesner explained that while that had always been everyone's preference, his engineers, as well as ATC's, had already studied it and long-since dismissed, never having even arrived at a final cost figure because the initial estimates were climbing so high.

The reason: the stacked-up infrastructure between North 113th Street and North Mayfair Road, where Watertown Plank is carried on a long viaduct that goes over one railroad track and under another while also crossing high over Underwood Creek.

It would extraordinarily difficult, Kesner said, and impossibly expensive, requiring directional boring of a 5-foot-diameter tunnel all the way under the creek bed.

In the end, Organ still did not vote for the Walnut Road alternative, saying before the final vote, "Does anyone feel like we're being bullied?"

The newest member of the council, Ald. John Dubinski, appointed to fill the departure of former Council President Eric Meaux after his departure following the April election, also voted in opposition.

Dubinski said that while he understood why no one would want to see overhead lines, he believed high-powered lines buried in residential streets was an even worse option, one he would not choose if it were in front of his home.

Dubinski wanted to know, though, why the line couldn't be buried in the Underwood Parkway road, rather than overhead there or buried on Walnut.

However, there are homes along the parkway as well – filled with residents who would be just as prone to any problems their Walnut counterparts would face.

Time to face the music

Beside, said Ald. Dennis McBride, the PSC had already made it clear that it would not approve and underground parkway route.

"If we delay this any more, we do so at our peril," McBride said. "We cannot negotiate (with the PSC) because we have not taken a position.

"If we stand alone against Milwaukee County, against the parties, we don't stand a chance. We will be left with the worst-case scenario.

"We have a submission to make, and we need to make it tonight."

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