City prepares for possible showdown with Dominion

City prepares for possible showdown with Dominion

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors, officials and residents prepared their defenses last week ahead of a possible fight this summer with utility Dominion Virginia Power over a proposal to run a 230-kilovolt
transmission line through Alexandria, passing a resolution outlining which routes would be “least objectionable” while maintaining an overall opposition to the project.

In February, Dominion officials announced they would seek approval from state regulators for the project this summer. The news came after the proposal sat dormant for more than a year while the utility evaluated new data from regional grid operator PJM about electrical load projections for the region.

Dominion spokesman Chuck Penn said in March that despite delays, the utility determined a line running from Dominion’s Glebe Road substation to a Pepco installation at the site of the
closed GenOn coal-fired power plant was still necessary to accommodate future electrical needs in Northern Virginia.

“It took even more of an extended period of time [than expected] for us to take a really hard, close look at the project itself and the load forecast in particular,” Penn said at the time. “We also took some time to study in depth some additional options that we thought may have been there. But after thoroughly re-evaluating the engineering and plans to identify the right solutions, we came to the conclusion that we did identify the right solution in the Glebe to Potomac River project.”

Since the utility’s announcement, Alexandria officials reconvened the work group tasked in 2014 with evaluating Dominion’s proposal and identifying which possible routes would be “least objectionable” to the city. Members of the group reconfirmed previous recommendations to city council on each of the nine routes under consideration.

The group recommended that any overhead transmission line options and route along Mount Jefferson Park Trail, Main Line Boulevard, U.S. Route 1 and Slaters Lane, and Commonwealth Avenue and East Glebe Road all be strongly opposed as “most objectionable.” Meanwhile, routes considered “least objectionable” include a route along CSX’s rail tracks, an underwater route through Four Mile Run and the Potomac River, a route along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and a route down Potomac Avenue.

The group also stressed in recommendations that the city be shown evidence proving the need for the project and why alternatives that do not run through Alexandria are not viable, since Dominion officials were not forthcoming on such details in any of their meetings with the working group.

“We’ve been asking at every meeting for the data from the third party agency that says there’s a need,” said Jay Nestlerode, chairman of the working group at a meeting with city council. “They never gave it to us, but they did say that there’s three different options, and all involve connecting with the Pepco station.”

“The city did, at the very beginning of the process [in 2014], request in writing from Dominion the technical reports justifying the need for the project,” said Bill Skrabak, deputy director of the city department of transportation and environmental services. “We verbally repeated that request multiple times, at just about every meeting since then.”

The lack of information from Dominion about the project dominated the discussion by city councilors, many of whom were visibly frustrated.

“The problem is, we don’t know that this route or this city is the only alternative there is, because of the lack of credibility of Dominion Virginia Power,” said City Councilor Del Pepper. “[We’ve] gone through all this effort to try to find out who benefits from this project, and that’s what [the working group] has been trying to do too. But we could never get anything back as to who benefits, because it’s probably not us.”

And City Councilor Paul Smedberg noted that some of the frustration from residents and leaders emanates from the fact that Dominion’s proposal comes so soon after two major construction projects in the development of Potomac Yard and the construction of the Metroway along U.S. Route 1 were completed.

“People find it hard to believe Dominion hasn’t known about this for a while, that they haven’t wanted to do this in some form or fashion,” Smedberg said. “Whether they’ve hooked up with Pepco — or Exelon, now — is another matter, but the fact is they knew they had to do this. They were doing work on the station by Monroe Street. Why didn’t they come forward during the actual building of the infrastructure of Potomac Yard when this easily could have been handled and that would have been it?”

Mayor Allison Silberberg led an effort to move the Potomac Avenue route from the least objectionable category to the most objectionable, citing concerns from neighbors, an amendment that passed unanimously.

“We still consider Potomac Avenue to be objectionable: [Nestlerode] said it was ‘most objectionable of the least objectionable,’” Silberberg said. “That’s kind of a euphemism; it’s the craziest phrase, no offense. It would just be easier if we leave it off.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson warned that although Dominion officials suggested they had been working on the city’s “least objectionable” concept of running the line along the CSX tracks, stakeholders should still prepare for a tough fight before the State Corporation Commission, if it comes to it.

“The reality is, this is all assuming a big assumption: that this is going to influence [Dominion’s] choices in a lot of ways,” he said. “We think it will in some ways, but do we think this is going to influence it enough?”