Rev up efforts to bury power lines

Power lines along Coming Street in Charleston on Friday July 5, 2013. (Leroy Burnell/Staff)

One of the things that makes the Four Corners of Law more beautiful also makes it more resilient during a Hugo-like hurricane: Buried power lines.

Because the lines aren’t draped along and across streets, views of the flags atop City Hall and the spire of St. Michael’s Church are uninterrupted.

And because underground wires are less prone to damage from major storms, the power around the area is also more likely to be uninterrupted.

So it’s frustrating that efforts across Charleston and the Lowcountry to bury power lines have moved excruciatingly slowly.

The obvious holdup is money. The work of burying lines is costly, even when shared by SCE&G, the cities and neighborhoods.

Further, in the case of neighborhoods, it is up to residents to push for the projects to be done. Just getting neighbors to agree to the idea takes time — and a person or people willing to take the lead. Then they wait for SCE&G to take up the project design. The first neighborhood to sign up is the first-served. When the design is made and the cost is estimated, two thirds of the neighbors have to agree, and that includes agreeing to pay their share, which is not insignificant.

Projects take years to get going even though it would seem expediting the projects would make sense to avoid power problems later on.

The city of Charleston does provide legal assistance to neighborhoods dealing with easements, but there is no staff person assigned to the long, difficult job of rallying a neighborhood. A city eager to see power lines buried would be wise to consider designating a staffer to help neighborhoods.

Since 1996, only the Crescent, Headquarters Island causeway and Country Club I have completed the process.

Orange Street and Ansonborough are in the planning stages. And six more neighborhoods are waiting their turns.

Public projects are more successful. The city’s remake of the plaza in front of Memminger Auditorium included burying utility lines. When the drainage project at the Market is finished, the streetscaping will include burying the lines. And they were buried at Gadsdenborough Park — $480,000 for about 500 feet of lines.

It is disappointing that power lines are not being buried while work is under way on Spring and Cannon streets. The cost was prohibitive, Mayor Joe Riley said. Converting the streets to two-way streets, redoing sidewalks and curbs, and landscaping will cost $6 million. To bury the lines would have doubled the cost. The mayor noted that the landscaping plan includes crape myrtles that are not so big as to interfere with power lines, but will mask the wires visually.

Hurricane season is here, and it should be a reminder to the Lowcountry that power poles can snap and overhead lines can be blown down.

Neighborhoods interested in having SCE&G put the lines underground have a big job ahead of them to make it happen.

But absent more interest from the city and SCE&G, it won’t happen any other way.