According to Massachusetts General Law, there is a means by which to pay for the lines to be put underground. It can be handled in one of two ways. The first method is to do the undergrounding initially and once the cost has been factored, a 2% surcharge is added to all the users of the utility service. In this way, a small furtive attempt is made and the cost is spread out over all the customer’s expenses. Eventually, the amount will build up to the point that more funds for undergrounding would be available and slowly but surely, the community could expand to other streets.
I use the word, “furtive” which means attempting to avoid notice or attention. Unfortunately, this little word has synonyms like, secretive, secret, surreptitious, clandestine, hidden, covert, conspiratorial, backroom, sly and my favorite, sneaky.
The idea is to get the consumers ‘used to’ the surcharge to the point they automatically budget for the increase. Governments have been doing that for years to great success but according to M.G.L.; if this kind of surcharge is contemplated locally, a public hearing is required and a review by boards, commissions and our elected city councilors is required.
An attempt was made recently when Brown Square was renovated using grants including CPA money. An unsightly line of telephone poles ran along one side of the park. To underground them, National Grid gave the city an estimate of about $300,000 for the project, plus or minus 25 percent. The surcharge for the average residential customer would be about $1.09 per month, or $13.14 over a year. Basically, in one year, the little stretch would be paid for completely. And the surcharge? Why that thing would just stay there.
When the required public hearing came along, citizens from across the city who were already suffering from rapid increases in utility rates found out that residents as far away asTurkey Hill who rarely visit the downtown, were going to be paying higher bills for a park they rarely visit.
Obviously, it didn’t go over well.
The second method is to present up to a 2% surcharge for undergrounding as a community decision. Either presented as a ballot initiative by city council or by citizens through a petition; it would be placed on the election ballot for the citizens to decide. This would allow both pros and cons of the proposal to be debated in the public forum.
This is the right way to present it. It’s also the slow way. After awhile, the funds would begin to accumulate and then the Mayor and the City Council could decide which streets could be done in order of priority (or politics). This of course, assumes it would pass.
There are four other ways.
First is to seek Federal dollars through various transportation grant and loan programs such as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century among others. Our Clipper City Rail Trail has been funded in this way. Basically, the funding would be justified for undergrounding due to scenic beautification, historic highway programs and to improve landscaping around welcome centers. It can also be incorporated as part of a larger project to improve local appearance.
Second, our MassDOT can often use the highway funds if the undergrounding is justified as a benefit to the public due to improved safety, aesthetics, economics and legal standing. One real plus is the fact that the utility is municipally owned property which now the City of Newburyport has undertaken. An added plus (to help the unhappy National Grid) is a possible utility reimbursement program which compensates and encourages them to do the burying.
Three, an area is designated by the state within Newburyport that will be converted to undergrounding. The utility company would be required to surcharge the customers within that area only to assist in the funding of the burying of the lines. This would be a partnership in which the City would work with the state to decide which area will be involved and would be sponsored through legislation.
The fourth way is highly punitive (and highly unlikely) in which the state would designate an area that would have its lines undergrounded and the City would have to pay for a significant portion through some bonding program and each abutter would have to pony up $1000 or more to hook up their utilities. In this case, 70% of the users would have to indicate their approval to the plan. (Like those crazies out on Plum Island did) Right! I certainly don’t see the citizens of mainland Newburyport being that masochistic!
The fact is that Newburyport prides itself as an historic city but with a clear vision of the future. Those ghastly 19th century telephone poles often with excessive attachments to them, looking like something out of India or Nigeria, have got to go. Personally, I think a combination of regional transportation campaigning coupled with local political efforts is the very best way.
Undergrounding allows the rest of the city to possess the property value enhancement the downtown has enjoyed for years. It’s good for making our city more desirable and it improves the equity and value for each property owner.
It is definitely worth a campaign to see it come into reality!