The cafeteria at Richey Elementary School is more accustomed to fish sticks and lime jello than artistic renderings of transmission-line poles. But poles took center stage on Wednesday, Feb. 24, as a small crowd arrived to chew over Tucson Electric Power's latest high-voltage proposals.
The company plans to string a new 138-kilovolt backup line from one substation near Grant Road and Interstate 10 to another in the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood, north of downtown. But getting from here to there has proven enormously sticky, with residents uniformly opposing a route that would place the lines alongside neighborhood homes on 11th Avenue.
Unfortunately, that's the cheapest route for TEP; it's about $3 million cheaper than the neighborhood-preferred route, according to company spokesman Joe Salkowski. And that means it's still on the table, as TEP moves toward submitting several possible routes to the Arizona Corporation Commission in April.
Concerns among the neighbors range from aesthetics—the new poles could reach a height of 100 feet—to questions about the health risks of living next of high-voltage lines.
Martina O'Brien teaches at a nearby Montessori school. She said the science surrounding power lines is far from settled. "TEP is saying they don't (present a risk), but there's no data showing that they aren't harmful. And there are a lot of scientific reports in other countries saying they are harmful.
"I don't have children living here, but I work with children in this neighborhood, in schools and at the church. I worry about anybody who's in continual proximity to these lines."
Some of the suggested routes would have the lines shadowing the frontage road west of I-10. Others present a path weaving back and forth across the interstate, before finally connecting to the Tucson Substation near Sixth Street.
Although there have been a series of public meetings to gauge public sentiment for the various routes, some neighbors have criticized the process. For one, tallies of public comments have not been released by the company, but instead are vaguely shaped into the various route proposals. Ed Beck, TEP's director of line-siting, conceded that those comments haven't been made public. "But they'll all be part of the record that gets entered at the Corporation Commission," he said.
According to O'Brien, TEP has also overlooked some of the people most affected by its plans. Take the date of this meeting, for instance. "We're right in the Yaqui neighborhood," she said. "This is the Lenten season. Ceremonies have already started. There's Mass going on right now. So the turnout from the barrio here is not going to be very high. And the first meeting of the working group was during Lent last year."
O'Brien herself missed some working-group gatherings because she was never notified by TEP, despite what she said were numerous requests to be placed on a mailing list. "I've not gotten any communications from TEP. I've called; I've e-mailed. I've talked to Ed Beck. I've sent in written things saying that I'd like to be apprised of this. But the only way I've heard about the meetings was from the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association."
Tim Hagyard lives with his family in Dunbar/Spring, right under the proposed 11th Avenue route. Safety will be a "nagging concern" if that route gets the nod, he said. "I don't think a residential street is the best route for high-capacity lines. We already have 46 kV lines here, and I think the 138 kV lines are more suited for frontage roads."
Like O'Brien, he also harbors concerns about this public process. "There could be a positive outcome," Hagyard said. "But there's this overlying sense that TEP is just fishing for information to retool their presentation. They're a business, and they're looking for the bottom line."
According to Salkowski, this wouldn't mark the first time that 138-kilovolt lines are strung through Tucson neighborhoods. For example, his maps show the lines leading to a substation near River Road, and another coming from a Tanque Verde Road-area substation.
Although Dunbar/Spring folks also worry about a hit on their property values, Salkowski suggested that any impact would be temporary. "Over the long-term, research we've seen shows that property values may fall slightly," he said, "but they rebound relatively quickly."
Either way, he insisted that TEP is listening to the public. "Residents along the route are our customers," he said, "and we take their concerns seriously."
Ian Johnson heads a group of Dunbar/Spring residents opposed to routing the line where it would impact the Barrio Anita, Barrio Blue Moon and the Old Pascua Neighborhood, as well as his own 11th Avenue home.
Johnson scoffs at the notion of quickly rebounding property values. "What does bouncing back in five years mean?" he asked. "That people have gotten used to it? Uncertainty over health impacts also affects property values."
Later, Beck told the intent audience that this new line is being proposed to increase reliability. "It's part of the load growth within the TEP system," he said. "Our system has grown to the point where we need additional capacity to serve that central-western Tucson area.
Since reliability is the prime driver, Beck said there are some worries that running a new backup line next to the existing line on I-10's west side presents its own niggling reliability issues. But he said those pitfalls "can be overcome" through design adjustments.
As in most things, the big factor is money. According to Salkowski, the west route that avoids Dunbar/Springs, Barrio Anita and other neighborhoods would cost about $5 million. That compares to just more than $2 million to string lines down 11th Avenue.
The cost would likely be shared by all customers of TEP, rather than by shareholders of its parent company, the UniSource Energy Corporation. (It should be noted that those shareholders recently saw a nice 10-cents-per-share bump in their dividends; while still below industry standards, that's not something to sneeze at.)
So money likely explains why the neighborhood route is still on the table, although it's received no neighborhood support. When asked about this, Beck got testy. "What I said is that we've heard strongly from the community working group that (the 11th Avenue routes) shouldn't move forward," he said. "We're looking for public input based on tonight and the opportunity to comment. ... Does the general public agree that (those routes) should be eliminated from consideration?"
At that point, one guy in the audience rose to his feet and glanced around. "Everybody?" he said, raising his arms.
"Yes!" the crowd replied in loud unison.
Dave Devine contributed to this story.