Coral Gables

Coral Gables to study multi-million dollar plan to move power lines underground after Irma

Utility workers from out-of-state work on power lines knocked down by trees and branches in Coral Gables on Sept. 16.
Utility workers from out-of-state work on power lines knocked down by trees and branches in Coral Gables on Sept. 16.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and what they considered a slow response from Florida Power & Light, Coral Gables leaders moved Tuesday to pursue moving power lines underground and may sue FPL in order to speed up negotiations.

Gables officials have been talking about moving lines underground since Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2005, but delays in power restoration after Irma revived the discussion. The work could cost more than $250 million and potentially lead to an increase in taxes.

“We’re sitting here 12 years later and we want the same thing. I think the only difference is we’ve got to take matters into our own hands,” Commissioner Frank Quesada said.

Gables leaders think the plan and the costs are worthwhile if they can prevent the kinds of power outages the city experienced. FPL attributed the severity of the outages to falling branches and trees from the city’s large tree canopy, while the city placed the blame on aging infrastructure.

Other cities that have considered burying lines, including South Miami, said the costs were too prohibitive.

The cost estimate was provided by the consulting company Stantec, which has worked with Golden Beach, Palm Beach and Key Biscayne on burying their power lines. Stantec noted that the underground lines could be vulnerable to storm surge but wouldn’t be affected by heavy winds. Also, outages typically can be restored more quickly with underground lines than above-ground lines.

One of the potential funding sources commissioners mentioned is a general obligation bond that would need to be approved by residents and be paid off over a number of years. Another option would be a special assessment for certain businesses or property owners.

Despite the potentially large costs, commissioners were adamant that the city had to consider the plan.

“If we wait another 10 years it’s not going to be $250 [million]. It could be $260 [million], if not more,” Commissioner Vince Lago said.

City staff plans to present a timeline and potential costs at the next commission meeting.

City leaders also voted to direct City Attorney Craig Leen to continue work on a planned lawsuit against FPL with the purpose of holding a settlement meeting with the utility company.

“Our aim is not to pursue litigation. Our aim is to bring them to the table,” Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli said.

The city issued fines to FPL after the utility missed its initial deadline for full power restoration. FPL described the city’s cease-and-desist fines and its planned lawsuit as “ludicrous.”

About 75 percent of affected customers in the Gables had their power restored early last week, but FPL did not meet the originally promised Sept. 17 target for power to be restored to all customers. In many parts of the city it took eight to 10 days for power to be restored after the storm.

The Gables has since been fully restored, according to FPL, and the city has not issued any more fines.

Plans for placing lines underground have been considered across South Florida but costs or other factors often slow down the process.

Last November, North Bay Village voters approved a measure to bury cable utility lines underground. That plan included approving a $9.1 million bond issue that residents will pay off over 30 years.

Since that approval though, Village Manager Frank Rollason said that there hasn’t been any action and that $9.1 million might not be enough. The cost of the work might actually range from $12 to $15 million.

He said costs and accounting for underground infrastructure, like sewer and water equipment, are factors municipalities should consider before pursuing underground power lines.

“When people talk about undergrounding, they don’t think about some of the ramifications,” Rollason said. “It’s not a cure-all.”

In other post-Irma action, commissioners directed staff to draft a law requiring city nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators and fuel in place.

The generator item is, in part, a reaction to the tragedy at the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center. The facility lost power during Hurricane Irma and within days, 11 elderly residents died.

Other homes and centers across South Florida were without power for most of the week after the storm, and some facilities had to be evacuated as seniors sat in sweltering heat and ran low on food and supplies.

“I think it’s important that we have regulations in the city so we don’t have the bad experiences that other municipalities have had recently,” Quesada said.

Gov. Rick Scott used emergency powers last week to mandate that nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state have generators in place within two months. The mandate requires the generators to be functional for up to four days; the Gables is considering a similar requirement.

The City Commission also approved the creation of a committee geared at preparing for emergencies like Irma. The committee will likely be a mix of residents, representatives from Miami-Dade County and from FPL.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3

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