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Back to the Future: When Baltimore First Debated Undergrounding

Baltimore has been debating undergrounding for a long time. Let's not be scared by BGE's cost calculations but move forward with a plan to underground lines with a date certain for completion.

The recent Derecho storm and the accompanying outages have once again brought the issue of undergrounding BGE’s infrastructure to the fore.   Senator James Rosepepe (representing parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Counties) was the first to call for thinking about undergrounding. The Baltimore Sun carried his message on Sunday, July 8, while some customers were still out of power from the Derecho that occurred 9 days earlier.  Senator Rosepepe was quoted in the Sun as saying, ‘It’s no longer an excuse for the utilities to say that we are shocked, shocked, shocked that the wind blew hard, or that it rained a lot or that it snowed for three days.  It’s unpredictable what weather event will take place on what day, but it is more predictable that we will continue to have them.”  

I’ve been doing some Proquest research (thanks to this free database search function provided by the Baltimore County Public Library) to prepare for next week’s reliability hearing in Howard County (more about that later), and stumbled upon five decades of conversation about undergrounding.  I found articles going back as far as the 1880s but I want to share just this one story that follows.

From an article entitled, ‘Better Buildings and Underground Wires’ comes this….” Another improvement which the burnt section makes amply opportunity is the removal of the wires and poles that obstruct and deface the streets, interfering with locomotion and making difficulty in case of fire.….now is the time to construct needed conduits before building operations begin. All telephone, telegraph, and feed wires of traction companies should go underground, and now is the time to construct needed conduits before building operations begin.  Electric lighting and power supplying wires should also go underground, being more dangerous than the telephone and telegraph wires. Not a single wire should be visible in the reconstructed area.  Ineffectual efforts to get all wires underground have been made in the past, but resistance has been made by interested parties and mysterious paralysis has overcome the city authorities, with the result that poles and wires still abound where they should not be seen.  There were practical inconveniences, perhaps, and potent lines of influence no less strong than the currents carried by the objectionable wires. But now the ground is cleared. There is no business in the area under consideration, and even businesses which have hitherto resisted the burying of their lines may now co-operate.  But whether they do or not, the city authorities should resolutely take advantage of the opportunity and remove…the nuisance and danger.”   

Is this from a contemporary article talking about rebuilding after some recent damage?  Nope, it’s from February 22, 1904 and is being written from the perspective of the Great Baltimore Fire. I’m no expert but when reliability keeps being done in by branches on overhead lines, it seems overdue to do something besides restringing the downed wires.  I’d like to see an independent study and a cost estimate for undergrounding that BGE doesn’t have a hand in.  I’d like to see a capital improvement project requiring BGE to use a specified amount of each year’s line upkeep fees, even if takes 15 or 20 years to underground every line.  I don’t want to be scared into another century of status quo.  After all, Baltimore’s only been talking about this for 108 years. 

Cathy Eshmont

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