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Burying powerlines beautifies cities at a cost

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:43 PM

They're a gritty, telltale feature of urban development, but power lines may soon vanish from the panorama of Pinellas County beaches as communities consider burying utilities along major roads.

Supporters say that "undergrounding," as the practice is commonly known, improves an area's appearance and reduces outages suffered during windy storms.

Moving electrical lines underground is expensive, though.

South Pasadena and Treasure Island are the latest Pinellas communities considering the shift, but for different reasons.

In Treasure Island, whose leaders met with Progress Energy officials Monday to work out details of its plan, the project is part of a $35 million beautification effort on Gulf Boulevard being paid for with Penny for Pinellas sales tax money.

Treasure Island is set to get nearly $3.8 million, and city leaders hope it will cover the cost of the project. Utilities would be moved underground, from the northern part of Sunset Beach to 104th Avenue, starting in 2014 or 2015 as part of a state Department of Transportation road resurfacing project.

"The primary reason we're looking into it is the beautification aspect of it," said Treasure Island City Manager Reid Silverboard.

In South Pasadena, which is not on the list of Pinellas cities slated to get sales-tax funding, city leaders see undergrounding as a way of upgrading the look of Pasadena Avenue and improving safety.

"I think our biggest concern in Pasadena is wind velocity," interim Mayor Larry Crowley said. "If you get some major winds, those wires hit the ground and it becomes a major safety issue."

Burying electrical wires on a mile-long stretch could cost more than $10 million. The city likely would finance the project through a bond, said Crowley.

Recent community meetings where undergrounding has been discussed suggest the idea has support. The proposal is also one of the only things on which Crowley and his opponent in next month's mayoral election, Dan Calabria, agree.

"It's a win-win," Calabria said in an email. "And very affordable with readily available state and federal funding."

Both cities have done some undergrounding. South Pasadena buried cables where they go from one side of the road to the other. Parts of northern Treasure Island also lack above-ground wires and poles. Indian Shores and Redington Shores have removed power lines from their stretches of Gulf Boulevard.

An enormous price tag isn't undergrounding's only drawback. "Underground systems are more difficult to access, and they cost more to upgrade," said Ann Marie Varga, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy.

While outages are less common with underground utilities, it's tougher to find the location of a breach, Varga said. Burying utilities in developed communities can also be very invasive for property owners, she said.

Indian Shores finished burying electric lines on Gulf Boulevard in 2007. The project required nearly 200 easements from property owners and caused traffic headaches for 21/2 years. The city took out a 30-year bond to cover the $6 million cost. The county will reimburse part of it with sales tax funds. "I think it was very much worth it," said Mayor James Lawrence. "From a power outage standpoint, we're much better off than we were when the utilities were up on poles. … From an aesthetics standpoint, the town is much more attractive."


kbradshaw@tampatrib.com (727) 215-7999

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