Siting Council Approves Transmission Lines to Run North of the Metro-North Line

Fairfield Metro train station (CT Examiner).

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State officials significantly modified a $225 million United Illuminating transmission line project in Bridgeport and Fairfield on Thursday, upsetting local opponents and considerably delaying the company’s plan.

While UI’s proposal called for the removal of aged transmission lines along the Northeast Corridor and to construct new monopoles primarily south of the Metro-North railroad line, the Connecticut Siting Council voted to require the company to instead build its new infrastructure north of the rail line.

Two members of the Siting Council suggested the plan as a way to lessen impacts on the surrounding houses, businesses and environment, while also strengthening the company’s infrastructure. Dubbed the Hannon-Morissette alternative, it passed with four council members in favor, one opposed and two abstaining.

Members of the local and federal delegations including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Jim Himes, Fairfield First Selectman Bill Gerber, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and a number of state legislators were largely opposed to the original proposal, which called for 19.25 acres of easements, about 7 acres of tree clearing and 102 new monopoles from Southport to downtown Bridgeport. 

The council estimated that the new plan would significantly reduce the amount required clearing, easements, and impacts to historic properties south of the railroad including the Southport Historic District and Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses in Bridgeport, but opponents say they are still not satisfied with the compromise.

In a Thursday news release, Gerber acknowledged the new alternative is less impactful than the company’s original plan, but he said he’s still concerned by the lack of details provided by the council and United Illuminating.

“Since UI has not yet designed this alternative route, property owners to the north have not been provided any notice of potential impacts on their properties, let alone a right to participate in the Siting Council hearing. Property owners could be facing significant impacts on their properties without any due process rights,” Gerber said.

While UI submitted hundreds of pages of maps, designs and analyses of its south-side plan, the company has yet to design the new alternative, meaning the height and location of the monopoles are unknown.

Earlier this week, Siting Council Executive Director Melanie Bachman declined to comment on the Hannon-Morissette alternative when asked for the details of the plan by CT Examiner.

Gerber maintained that there should be no easements across “sensitive areas” north of the tracks and the monopoles should stay at their current height of 85 feet rather than UI’s proposed 100- to 135-foot poles. But the best option, he said, would be to move the lines underground. 

Gerber, the city of Bridgeport, and the Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust have asked the utility to bury the lines. UI officials say that the underground option is too costly and is not supported by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Cost estimates for the underground option differed dramatically between the applicant and opponents. UI estimated it would cost about $1 billion to install the project underground, but the town estimated $200 million for an underground double-circuit configuration. SCNET estimated $182 million.

The sole council member who opposed the project altogether, Quat Nguyen, said earlier this month that he could not, in good conscience, approve the plan without a sufficient cost analysis.

Also in the Thursday news release, SCNET co-founder Andrea Ozyck said she shares the same concerns as the town, and questioned whether the decision was in line with the council’s charge.

“The Siting Council’s responsibility is to balance the need for reliable and cost-effective utility services with the environmental and ecological impacts,” Ozyck said. “Yet there’s no way for the council to know what the impact is, because there is no engineered plan. So they’re approving a plan without knowing the impacts.”

According to UI officials, the council decision will delay their initial estimated service date of May 2028.

Company officials told CT Examiner on Thursday that they will now reenter the design process for the council’s plan, which could take between nine months to one year to complete. They said the process will be followed by surveying, geotechnical engineering, permitting and community outreach phases, so they cannot yet commit to a new timeline.

But UI Vice President of Projects Jim Cole said the company is committed to following through on the new plan.

“Significant work lies ahead to design and implement the selected alternative, and UI is committed to keeping municipalities, commercial and residential customers informed every step of the way while working individually with abutting homeowners and impacted businesses,” he said.

While many opponents have questioned the motivation for the project altogether, Cole backed the need to replace the more than 60-year-old equipment and meet projected electrification demands for New England customers, which they expect to double by 2050.

The Ganim administration did not respond to a request for comment.