As Tucson Electric Power moves closer to identifying a route for a proposed high-voltage transmission line to run through central Tucson, residents of historic neighborhoods are alarmed at the prospect of 110-foot poles popping up around them.
But the proposed 138-kilovolt line — designed to better serve customers, including the University of Arizona — must run from a TEP power plant on the south side through part of the UA somehow, and that means the line could cut through the neighborhoods that essentially ring the campus.
Under some proposed routes for TEP’s Kino to DeMoss-Petrie Transmission Line, residents of the Sam Hughes Neighborhood would see the power lines and poles from 75 to 110 feet tall along its western border on North Campbell Avenue.
“The massive scar of the proposed power poles and lines cutting through the center of the city should not be inflicted on any historic neighborhoods, even along a perimeter boundary of those neighborhoods,” said Kathi McLaughlin, a longtime local architect who sits on the Sam Hughes Neighborhood Association’s committee on TEP.
“This permanent scar will affect not just the neighborhoods, but all Tucsonans,” McLaughlin said, arguing that Campbell Avenue and Grant Road are traversed by many Tucsonans “whose street views will be forever changed by these massive poles.”
Residents of Jefferson Park, West University, Iron Horse and other neighborhoods listed as historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places have also opposed running the new transmission line, known as the Kino to DeMoss-Petrie Transmission Line, through their neighborhoods.
They argue the line and its lofty power poles would destroy the character of their neighborhoods, and some have urged TEP to consider installing the line underground to avoid aerial lines altogether.
TEP says the project, which includes a new substation on the UA campus at the northwest corner of the Banner-University Medical Center campus, is needed to boost power capacity, improve reliability and tie into the UA and Banner-UMC campuses to meet growing demand.
TEP says “undergrounding” the high-voltage lines would be too costly and make repairs lengthier and more expensive — something some neighborhood activists dispute.
Not everyone is opposed to the new power line running through or near their neighborhood.
Residents of Pueblo Gardens, a neighborhood just northwest of the new substation at Kino Parkway and East 36th Street, are looking forward to improved electrical service as the system has strained under new load from nearby retail and office development, said Cindy Ayala, president of the neighborhood association.
Ayala, a Pueblo Gardens resident for 40 years, said the neighborhood is now on three separate circuits, and residents are used to outages and brownouts that have caused damage to TVs and other electrical equipment.
“You never know what’s coming, and whether it’s going to affect one, two or three grids,” she said. “With this coming to fruition, this is going to be fixed and we won’t have to worry about dealing with so many brownouts.”
Narrowing down potential routes
TEP is still in the process of narrowing down proposed routes for its Kino to DeMoss-Petrie 138 Kilovolt Transmission Line project, which is designed to carry power from a substation nearing completion at East 36th Street and South Kino Parkway to the DeMoss Petrie Generating Station, a gas-fired power plant just east of Interstate 10 off West Grant Road.
The utility most recently has proposed eight line segments for the power line, consisting of of four southern routes running from the Irvington power plant to the planned new UA substation just north of Banner-University Medical Center-Tucson, and four to the north running from the UA substation west to the DeMoss-Petrie plant near Grant Road and Interstate 10.
After taking further public comment on those routes through Sept. 20, TEP plans on holding more public meetings, likely online, in October, TEP spokesman Joe Barrios said.
TEP plans to identify a preferred, complete route and at least two alternatives in an application the utility plans to file with the Arizona Corporation Commission in December, Barrios said.
The matter will then be considered in public hearings by the Arizona Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee. That panel will then recommend the issuance or denial of a certificate of environmental compatibility for the project to the Corporation Commission, which will make the final decision.
Barrios said TEP has been working with more than 30 neighborhood groups, local government entities and other utilities on the power-line proposal.
Last week, TEP dropped two similar, proposed southern routes that would run from the Irvington power plant and along Euclid between Broadway and Speedway, leaving a substantially similar route that avoids a short section on Speedway.
The utility also dropped one proposed northern segment that ran from the new UA substation directly south through campus to Speedway, then up North Oracle Road to Grant and DeMoss-Petrie, replacing it with a similar route that veers west before dropping down to Speedway.
TEP’s Barrios said the new route was added as another option in response to concerns about the power line running through neighborhoods east, west and north of the planned UA substation.
Barrios said the company has tried its best to keep more than 40,000 residents and property owners in the power-line study area informed about the proposed routes with two newsletter and postcard mailings and newspaper ads.
TEP held public-comment open-house meetings on the transmission line project last October and stakeholder working group meetings in December and February. And another planned meeting in March was postponed because of the pandemic and held as a virtual meeting in August.
Barrios said TEP has received more than 800 comments on the Kino to DeMoss-Petrie line project, and all of them will be included in its application to the state line-siting committee and Corporation Commission.
Last week, the heads of four historic neighborhoods to the west and south of the UA — West University, Feldman’s, Pie Allen and Iron Horse — wrote a letter to the Tucson City Council, advocating for routes along the west side of North Campbell Avenue.
The groups said the Campbell route was “the least disruptive,” citing the wide road and easements and absence of private homes on that route.
In contrast, they said, routes proposed along Euclid Avenue are longer, run through historic and neighborhood preservation zones and would negatively impact the UA and Tucson High Magnet School.
The groups said burying the power lines is the best alternative and asked the council to press TEP and the Corporation Commission to explain why that solution is not viable.
Sam Hughes’ McLaughlin said TEP’s proposed routes have had the effect of pitting one neighborhood against another.
McLaughlin said Sam Hughes in its comments to TEP has opposed plans to run the new power line through any historic neighborhood, but TEP has essentially asked residents to “vote” on which routes they prefer.
“We didn’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but now none of our comments were tallied and considered as votes,” she said.
Pueblo Gardens’ Ayala said she’s heard the complaints from the other neighborhoods, but service improvements are desperately needed in her neighborhood.
“They are going to gripe, but this is something that is needed down here,” she said.
Barrios said it was never TEP’s intent to play one neighborhood against the other, and the routes proposed are simply the only potential routes that are feasible to connect the Irvington and DeMoss-Petrie power plants via the new UA substation.
“We’re not interested in pitting neighborhoods against each other; we have reached out to all the neighborhoods in the study area,” Barrios said. “We fully admit that we face some challenges in finding a route for this project because of neighbor concerns and other factors.”
But Barrios said the historic neighborhoods will benefit especially from the new transmission line because many of them have reached the capacity of their aging distribution lines and switch gear.
“We’re looking at building facilities in this study area because that’s where the customers are, that’s where the needs are,” he said. “We need to replace them or we’re going to have reliability problems.”
“Undergrounding” rejected by TEP
TEP has rejected the idea of installing all or some of the Kino to DeMoss-Petrie line underground, because of the cost of construction and cost and difficulty in making repairs to underground lines.
The utility commissioned a study showing that “undergrounding” the lines would cost $11 million per mile, compared with about $1 million per mile for overhead wires.
Maintenance costs and outage times would also increase because underground lines must be accessed through vaults or dug up for repairs, TEP says.
The utility says it only installs smaller, neighborhood distribution lines underground, and then only when the developer or property owner pays for it.
But a resident of the Iron Horse neighborhood with a background in financial analysis says TEP has vastly overstated the cost of underground lines.
Dan Dempsey, who spent several years as a research analyst for the investment arm of a major bank, said he found two power-line undergrounding projects in Scottsdale, one about a mile long and the other 2 miles, with the mile-long project completed by Arizona Public Service Co. in 2018 at a cost of $3 million, less than an initial estimate of $4 million.
Those lines were half the capacity of TEP’s proposed line at 69 kilovolts, but even at double the cost they are still half of TEP’s estimate, he said.
He also cited a 2011 study for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission that pegged the cost of a mile of underground for 138kV lines at $2 million, which even at triple the cost now would be a little more than half of TEP’s estimate.
While TEP and city officials have suggested that undergrounding would have to be funded through a special tax district, as was one of the Scottsdale projects, Dempsey said TEP could easily afford the cost itself, calculating the annual cost of a $10 million undergrounding project at less than 0.01% of TEP’s annual revenue of about $1.4 billion.
“Undergrounding Campbell is the only option that makes any sense and I think everybody can get unified behind it,” said Dempsey, who now heads a software startup.
TEP had not seen Dempsey’s calculations, which he said he plans to file as comments to TEP and later with regulators.
But TEP’s Barrios said the utility stands behind the findings of its study on the cost of undergrounding, which was written by a third-party consultant and is posted on TEP’s project website.
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