Power to the Utility

A neighborhood feels wronged after TEP--without warning--decides to install new, larger power poles

Lying under two long ribbons of existing overhead utility lines, rust-colored steel poles awaiting installation last week sat on the ground along Sahuara Avenue north of Speedway Boulevard. To officials of Tucson Electric Power Company, the new poles represent improved service and cost savings to ratepayers. To those living on the street, they symbolize the dictatorial powers of the company.

Surprised to learn from a TEP field worker several months ago that a new 46-kilovolt line--strung from 65-foot poles--was to be installed on Sahuara between Speedway and Grant Road, residents quickly banded together. Even though shorter wooden poles, some carrying 14 kV electrical service, now adorn both sides of the street, they didn't want the taller steel towers.

"We regret the neighborhood found out about the project in that fashion," admits TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski. "We usually work closely with neighborhoods."

After that initial miscue, a company representative attended a Harlan Heights Neighborhood Association meeting. He explained that the company had explored three options for connecting an electrical substation near Speedway and Kolb Road with another one at Sahuara and Grant Road. Intended to provide redundancy and extra capacity for Tucson's burgeoning eastside, one alternative for the new line went partially along Wilmot Road; another used Craycroft Road, and the third ran past the modest single-family homes on Sahuara Avenue.

Because of an existing 46 kV line on Speedway Boulevard, Salkowski says the $1.5 million Sahuara option is $660,000 cheaper than the Wilmot route. He also indicates the Craycroft alternative was rejected on a "reliability basis."

The neighborhood decided to fight the decision. They wanted either the more-commercial Wilmot alternative selected, or the line on their street placed underground. At the same time, residents looked into the franchise agreement between the municipal government and the utility company.

The agreement was approved by Tucson voters in 2000 and will pay City Hall $9.18 million this year. It also, in the opinion of neighborhood association president Patrick Gibbons, gives TEP carte blanche powers to locate electrical poles wherever they want.

"Tucson Electric Power has absolute immunity," Gibbons says. "They can do whatever they wish with their poles. The city government is impotent (in this regard)."

Labeling the utility company arrogant, Fr. Robert Rankin, of St. Melany's Byzantine Catholic Church, vehemently blasts TEP. The pastor of the Sahuara Avenue church says the utility company doesn't care about the appearance of the community.

"The city government doesn't have any control over the aesthetics of its own city," Rankin says. "The utility company is a power onto itself, and it has no interest in the aesthetic values of Tucson." Then he adds in frustration: "This is obviously a class issue. TEP ran these poles through a low-income neighborhood to supply the electrical needs of suburban areas."

First-time homeowner Carol Harrison, who will be moving into a house on Sahuara shortly, agrees with Rankin. "TEP wouldn't do this in a wealthier neighborhood," Harrison believes.

Saying she was "shocked" and had a "gut-retching feeling" after finding about the project, Harrison thinks the new poles will make her street less attractive. "There are nice, little wooden poles now," she says, "but the new ones are huge steel industrial poles which aren't appropriate to a residential neighborhood. They will add to the general ugliness of Tucson, which needs all the help it can get."

Salkowski indicates the new poles should be in place by the end of April; after they are installed, and some of the existing wooden ones are removed, there will be no more poles on the street than there are now. Salkowski also stresses that the company's electrical charges are impacted by where power lines are located. "The rates are based on the system being largely above ground," he says.

Despite that, Harlan Heights residents were hoping that the new line could be placed underground, an extra expense of $450,000, according to Salkowski. The company's franchise agreement with the city provides that one-ninth of the annual fee TEP pays can be used for this purpose, but also includes low-income energy assistance programs, as well as encouraging the use of renewable energy, on this expenditure list.

It is the Tucson City Council's decision as to how the more than $1 million available is appropriated. This fiscal year, $400,000 is being spent on underground lines at the Fourth Avenue underpass, on Mountain Avenue north of Fort Lowell Road, and at the Grant and Craycroft intersection.

Having failed in their efforts to prevent the installation of the tall steel poles, the residents of Harlan Heights now have words of caution.

"This will happen to other Tucson neighborhoods," Rankin insists. "The only question is when." To prevent that from occurring, he hopes the City Council will immediately adopt a policy to bury future power lines.

From his perspective, Gibbons believes the franchise agreement between TEP and the city government should be altered when it comes up for renewal in 20 years. Even though that is a long way off, he would like to see a citizens' committee or something similar be in place to review company plans in order to protect neighborhoods.

Without some sort of control over the location of utility lines, Gibbons thinks the appearance of Tucson will decline even further. "We're becoming a city of steel poles," he laments.

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