By Carla Branch
alexandrianews.org

(courtesy image)

The Alexandria City Council on Saturday unanimously approved consideration of the Potomac Avenue alignment of the proposed 230kV power line as the “least objectionable” alternative and sunset the Potomac Yard Metro Station Tier II Special District when the City receives the $43.3 million payment from Dominion Energy for the right-of-way to construct the new power line. This will allow Dominion to place this alternative on the table when the company applies for permission to construct the line with the Virginia State Corporation Commission in July.

Dominion first proposed construction of the 230kV line in June, 2014. The City appointed a Working Group at that time who met with representatives from Dominion and considered nine alignment alternatives. Dominion brought the proposal forward because PJM, the regional power grid manager, said there was a need for additional power capacity due to current usage and proposed development. In May, 2016, City council adopted a Resolution opposing overhead power lines and selected the CSX Railroad Corridor alignment as the “least objectionable” alternative.

Dominion entered into negotiations with CSX and the two companies informally agreed that Dominion would pay a $20 million licensing fee to CSX. According to a Dominion spokesperson who presented information to Council on Saturday, “The leadership at CSX changed and the price went up to $75 million. Also, CSX would not agree to an exclusive use; said we must place the manholes for access to the lines off their property; suggested they could decide at any point in the future we must remove the line; and said that they might build tracks over the line at some point. This makes construction of this line on CSX property virtually impossible and cost prohibitive.”

A “Rebuild” alternative remains on the table that would replace the power line currently under Route 1. While that alternative would replace the current line, Dominion said it would not add sufficient capacity to meet the projected need.

Dominion Energy Comparison (courtesy image)

In December, 2017, Dominion returned to the City with this information and the Working Group was brought back together to take another look at alternative alignments. That group began meeting with Dominion in early 2018 and, in March, voted 6-2 to reconsider the Potomac Ave. alternative. This is Dominion’s preferred alternative and will cost the company $330 million, a cost that will likely be passed on to customers if the SCC approves the project.

If approved, the new power line will be placed under the center of the northbound lane of Potomac Ave. The project is expected to take three years. For between nine months and a year, one to two blocks of Potomac Ave. at a time will be closed while Dominion digs a primary trench where the power line will be placed. Construction will take place only during the day – defined by the City as 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – except in an emergency. The project includes relocation of the Four Mile Run substation.

“We chose the center of the northbound lane to have the least impact on nearby residences, the park and the median,” the Dominion representative said. “None of the trees in the median will be removed and the trees that are removed in the park will be replaced on a one-for-one basis.”

As part of the agreement between Dominion and the City for the Potomac Ave. alignment, Dominion will allow the City to place fiber-optic cable for expanded broadband access alongside the new underground powerline. Over the past two years, the City has made significant investments in broadband infrastructure. 

Mayor Allison Silberberg asked Dominion representatives and City staff for assurances that, in addition to the CSX and Rebuild alternatives also on the table for SCC consideration, that the non-wired alternative will also be considered. “We can consider it but for it to be viable, the structure to produce renewable energy must be in place and that is not currently the case in this region,” said the Dominion representative. “Virginia is a leader in developing the structure to produce solar and wind energy but it will not address the demand that requires us to install this new line and won’t be in place in time to meet the need that PJM is projecting.”

Council members also asked that the need be reassessed as the SCC process moves forward. “PJM constantly reassesses that need and when Dominion presents its application to the SCC, we have set aside money for a consultant to review Dominion’s and PJM’s calculations,” said Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert.

When the City began discussions with Dominion about the 230kV line in 2014, the Working Group did not include a representative from Potomac Yard. A representative from the residents of Potomac Yard was added when the Working Group was reactivated in 2018. That representative voted against the reconsideration of the Potomac Ave. alignment and residents of Potomac Yard spoke against it at the Council public hearing on Saturday.

“Most of the members of the Working Group don’t live in Potomac Yard and will not be effected by construction of the power line on Potomac Avenue,” said one Potomac Yard homeowner. “It does not seem fair that we had only one representative on the Working Group as we will have the greatest impact.”

Nonetheless, Council unanimously approved the Potomac Ave. alignment as the “least objectionable” alternative. Dominion plans to submit its application to the SCC in July. That approval process is expected to take at least one year.

Council Sunsets Tier II Special Tax District

Council also unanimously agreed to sunset the Potomac Yard Metro Station Tier II special Tax District. This decision was tied to the previous vote on the 230kV line Potomac Ave. alignment.

When City Council approved plans for the Potomac Yard Metro Station in 2010, Council also approved two Special Tax districts in Potomac Yard to help finance the project. The Tier I Special Tax District encompasses North Potomac Yard and placed an additional 20-cent tax burden on the owners of the commercial and business properties located there. That tax has been collected since 2011 and means that those property owners are now paying $1.33 per $100 of assessed value in real estate taxes each year.

At the time, a Tier II tax of an additional ten cents per $100 value was assessed on homeowners who lived south of the proposed Metro
Station. As residents moved into the new properties in the Tier II Special Tax District, they complained about the unfairness of the additional tax burden. Council decided not to impose the Tier II tax until such time as the contract to build the Station was awarded. In April of this year, the budget and financing for the Station became clearer and, with the $43.3 million from Dominion for the Potomac Ave. right-of-way, the City decided it was possible to sunset the Tier II Special Tax District without ever imposing that burden on Potomac Yard residents.

The Tier II Special Tax District has always been controversial. “People from all over Alexandria will benefit from this Metro Station,” said one Potomac Yard homeowner. “Commuters who work in Alexandria will benefit from this Metro Station. Why should we be the only ones who pay for it?”

Most residents of Potomac Yard who spoke at Saturday’s public hearing said that the Special Tax District should be removed and that Council should not approve the 230kV line Potomac Ave. alignment. “Remove the Tier II Special Tax District and, if you must approve the Potomac Ave. alignment for the new power line, use the $43.3 million from Dominion to pay for the southern entrance to the Metro Station that was removed because of budgetary considerations,” said one speaker. “We were promised easy access to the Metro Station and now that the southern entrance has been removed, that is not the case.”

City Manager Mark Jinks explained that the payment from Dominion was needed to replace funding for the Metro Station from the Tier II Special Tax District. Funds for the second Metro Station entrance are not currently available. Silberberg said that those discussions are ongoing.