It won’t be the last word on a proposal by United Illuminating to move transmission lines off the Northeast Corridor in Bridgeport and Fairfield, but local officials say they are encouraged in their fight after a non-binding vote on Thursday by the Connecticut Siting Council rejected plans by the utility.
Under the $225 million proposal, UI would have swapped aged transmission lines with new 100- to 135- foot monopoles south of the Metro-North railroad line, requiring 19.25 acres of easements and 6.5 acres tree clearing.
Officials, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, State Rep. Jennifer Leeper and Fairfield First Selectman Bill Gerber, have staunchly opposed the plan, pointing to lasting impacts on historic properties and the local environment. Gerber recently promised a legal battle if the Siting Council were to approve it.
But at the Thursday meeting, council members rejected the plan as currently proposed. In sum, one member opposed the proposal completely and four voted to instead move the new lines onto the northern side of the railroad line.
“I believe that the northern route is the way to go on this,” council Chair John Morissette said.
While leaders in Fairfield and Bridgeport have called for an underground alternative, Morissette said that option would be far too expensive, too difficult to accommodate and was opposed by the state. Building double-circuit lines on the existing northern corridor, he said, would lessen the impacts.
If UI adjusts its proposal, Morissette said he’d be willing to approve the application. Although many have questioned the need to increase capacity along the rail line, he said the area is in clear need of an upgrade.
“Traditionally, southwest Connecticut has been known as a congested area, so any improvements in the transmission system are well taken,” he said.
According to the utility company, the equipment south of the railroad is more than 60 years old and unable to meet projected customer demands, which they expect to double by 2050. UI has not yet inspected the northern equipment, having rejected that plan due to cost concerns.
Council member Quat Nguyen agreed that upgrading the transmission lines is important, but argued that UI failed to provide a sufficient cost analysis.
Given that local ratepayers would be financing the project, Nguyen said he’d like the utility company to provide detailed cost estimates for numerous alternatives, including underground lines, before moving forward.
“I cannot, in good conscience, approve the proposed project or any other alternatives absent a robust cost analysis,” Nguyen said.
According to Morissette, the council will issue its draft decision on Feb. 15, as the Thursday discussion was not an official ruling. But on Friday, Gerber, Hwang and Leeper celebrated the non-binding vote.
Gerber, who previously questioned the council’s motives in application hearings, said the meeting was a “significant step in the right direction,” adding that the town still believes undergrounding to be the best option for Fairfield.
“We continue to have serious concerns about the potential impacts of a double-circuit design. There should be no easements over sensitive areas to the north of the railroad tracks, and the monopoles should not be taller than those that are currently there,” he said.
While the northern configuration would decrease impacts on historic resources, private properties and the environment, Gerber said the council should reconsider easements over “sensitive areas” north of the tracks.
The council members have not yet presented a map detailing their proposed easements. Some historic properties along the northern side of the railroad include the Henry W. And Florence B. Sherman House in Fairfield, and the Railroad Avenue Industrial District and St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Bridgeport.
Similarly, Hwang said the northern alternative would not stop officials from opposing UI, and warned the council that the fight to preserve local resources would continue.
“I am part of a bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders from Fairfield and Bridgeport which is united in our support of the towns, residents and commercial businesses,” he said. “This is a fight for fairness. It is a fight to demand respect for ratepayers and their property rights.”
Leeper, however, said she wholeheartedly supports the council’s decision to reject the application as proposed. She thanked the members for taking the concerns raised by local homeowners, businesses and officials into account and holding UI to a “reasonable standard.”
“This decision is non-binding and, therefore, does not mark the end of our advocacy,” she said. “Nonetheless, today, we breathe a small sigh of relief here in Fairfield and Bridgeport.”
In a Friday email, Jim Cole, vice president of projects at United Illuminating, urged the importance of the project, and said the company is committed working with the council to move the upgrades forward.
“We appreciate the opportunity to engage constructively with the CSC, and as we await the final decision, we look forward to further opportunities to discuss the benefits of this project by working individually with our towns, businesses, and residential customers in the coming weeks and months,” Cole said.
This story has been updated to include comment from UI VP of Projects, Jim Cole, to correct the timeline for projected demand, and for the decision.