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Undergrounding - Q & A



Undergrounding Newburyport



Pros & Cons (of undergrounding)


      Q: What is "undergrounding?"


      A: Undergrounding is the process of burying overhead power, telephone and

      cable lines and removing the utility poles which currently hold them.


      Q: What are the benefits of undergrounding?


      A:  Putting the utility wires underground serves many purposes. Some are

      purely aesthetic, some affect the system reliability, and others provide

      financial benefits. Here are some of the reasons to put the lines



        Aesthetics: The overhead lines can only be described as ugly. The space

        they occupy is becoming increasingly congested with additional lines and

        equipment.  Utility company practices frequently violate city and state

        ordinances. For example, double poles are left in place for more than

        the 90 days allowed, excess coils of cable are left dangling or tacked

        to a pole rather than being trimmed off or secured properly, and debris

        is left on the street.


        Reliability: Multiple studies have concluded that underground utilities

        are more reliable after the initial installation, with as few as one

        third the number of failures as are experienced with overhead lines on

        poles. An overhead system is more vulnerable to storm related outages,

        having poles downed by vehicles, and lines downed by tree limbs.


        Safety: Poles present hazards for motor vehicles and downed lines present

        electrical and fire hazards.

        Value: Property values increase when utility poles do not interfere with

        views and lines are put underground. A proof point is that nine out of

        ten new subdivisions opt for underground utilities even though they are

        initially more expensive. Also, realtors frequently have wires “air

        brushed” out of photos of houses that are on the market.  This improves

        their appearance in pictures and, the realtor hopes, makes the asking

        price more palatable, but the buyer will be confronted by the existence

        of the wires upon visiting the home.


        Trees: Utility lines force unnecessary, unhealthy and improper pruning of

        trees solely at the discretion of the power company. This also

        contributes to the aesthetic issues surrounding overhead lines.


        Efficiency: Underground cables can use larger conductors resulting in

        less energy loss.


      Q: What are the downsides of undergrounding?


      A: Critics of undergrounding are quick to point out issues that accompany

      that effort. These are generally in the areas of cost and duration of



        Cost: Undergrounding existing utility lines is very expensive. Cost

        estimates range as high as $1 million per mile just for the power lines

        in an area with the density of Newburyport. Undergrounding telephone and

        cable-television lines adds to the cost.


        Disruption: Streets have to be excavated and conduit installed, although

        pairing undergrounding with planned street reconstruction can minimize

        added inconvenience.  Undergrounding on private property sometimes

        entails digging trenches in lawns or gardens.


        Repair: It is generally acknowledged that while failures are less

        frequent with underground cables, the average time and cost to

        troubleshoot and repair each failure that does occur is significantly

        higher. Estimates exist which suggest that the repair time is about 1.6

        times longer and the cost can be as much as 4 times higher. The impact

        of repair can also be aggravated if it necessitates tearing up the road.


Q: Will undergrounding eliminate all above ground lines and



      A: While undergrounding would eliminate all above ground lines, there

      would still be some equipment such as transformers that would have to be

      located above ground on concrete pads. There would also be some major

      feeders coming in to the City that would have to remain overhead.

      Q: What happens to the streetlights when the poles are no longer needed because wires have been put underground?


      A:Those currently mounted on the utility poles would have to be put on

      lampposts with the electricity fed from underground. Many communities

      elect to use decorative poles, especially in historic districts.


      Q: Who bears the cost of connecting a property to the underground cabling?


      A: This cost is usually borne by the property's owner. In some projects,

      multiple property owners join together to contract for the necessary

      private-property work; this makes it more efficient for the contractor and

      sometimes yields cost savings for each property owner.


      Q: Does the entire City have to underground all the lines at the same



      A: No. Many cities have chosen to underground utilities in certain areas

      first. Newburyport already has underground utilities in the area around City

      Hall and in some parts of Newburyport Center. The aesthetic benefits are

 very obvious in those cases.


      Q: Who pays for the cost of undergrounding?


      A: The City is responsible for securing funding for putting the utility

      lines along public ways underground and eliminating the utility poles.


      There are several means for providing that funding.


      The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a law on the books, , which allows the City to mandate

      that the electric and telecomm utilities collect a prescribed surcharge on

      the cost of delivering their services. All rate-payers have to pay the

      surcharge when this funding method is used. The funds generated by the

      surcharge are collected by each utility and must be used to pay that

      utility's costs of moving their infrastructure underground. Because

      undergrounding existing utilities is expensive, this is a very slow way to

      fund such projects and has been used infrequently.


      Other means of funding include bond issues and assessments to Business

      Improvement Districts. Significant savings can be achieved if the road is

      under construction and undergrounding is performed at the same time.


      Q: Does the City derive a financial benefit from undergrounding?


A: Yes, but for a surprising reason: underground lines are subject to

taxation, while lines on poles are not.    In addition, the rise in property values due to better aesthetics will eventually benefit the city’s schools and services.


      Q: Who owns the poles in the City of Newburyport?


A: They are jointly owned by NStar and Verizon. There is an agreement

between the two companies that makes NStar responsible for maintaining

poles in a ortion of Newburyport toward the north and Verizon isresponsible for maintaining those in another area toward the south.


      Q: Have any other Massachusetts cities and towns been active in recent

      years in burying wires?


A: Other towns in Massachusetts including Concord, Wellesley, Bedford,

Duxbury, Nantucket, Holden, and Needham have completed limited projects to bury wires. Other towns that currently have projects underway include

Chelmsford, North Andover, and Westwood.


      FAQs (Questions with Answers)


      Q: Besides the wires, what is all the other unsightly stuff up on the

      utility poles? For that matter, what are all the wires?


      A: The Task Force is in the process of educating itself about utility

      wires in Newburyport and the potential for reducing them.


      Some Questions Still to be answered


      Q:.  I understand that one of the sets of wires on the poles belongs to the

      Newburyport Fire Department. What are those wires used for?


      Q:  What have homeowners paid to have utility wires on their property buried?

      Q: Do you know someone who has buried their wires?


      Q: Can you find out when it was done, who did the work, what the length of  

           the run of wires was, and what it cost?



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