BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — A controversial public works project that has been the subject of community meetings and debate for several years entered a new phase yesterday when a state agency came to Salem to begin its official review.
The Energy Facilities Siting Board opened the first of three local hearings yesterday afternoon in a theater at Salem State University. Despite the controversy this project has sparked over the planned route through tightly packed neighborhoods and the historic downtown, the afternoon hearing was sparsely attended, a fact some blamed on the month (”Witch City” in October) and the place (a congested college campus with limited parking).
A second session was scheduled last night to be followed by a final local hearing Nov. 6 at Salem High.
If nothing else was settled yesterday, it became clear that the state’s review of this major electrical cable replacement project will be long and, by all appearances, thorough. Representatives from the state board said that in addition to public comments, they will collect and analyze data and conduct their own series of evidentiary hearings in Boston.
The board is not expected to announce a decision until August.
National Grid, which is replacing high-voltage, underground transmission cables that run more than a mile from a substation at Salem Harbor Station to another on Canal Street, hopes to start construction by November 2014 and complete the project by May 2016.
The project has drawn concern from residents and businesses for several reasons. For one, it requires digging up a pathway through the heart of the downtown — Fort Avenue, Derby Street, New Derby Street, Washington Street and Canal Street — to remove old, failing cables.
Of greater concern is National Grid’s recommendation to install two new cables under streets that run to and around Salem Common, down Hawthorne Boulevard and Congress Street, and through The Point and South Salem over to Canal Street.
One city leader stressed the enormity of the project and raised concerns about National Grid.
“While we recognize these cables need to be replaced, we are extremely apprehensive about National Grid’s ability to do so in a manner that is sensitive to the historic nature of our buildings, the complex nature of our in-ground infrastructure, and the vibrant activity of our local businesses and residential neighborhoods,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said in a statement.
Several business owners and community leaders strongly urged the board to consider two options that they contended would have less impact on the downtown but which National Grid has rejected as impractical, harmful to the environment or too costly — installing the cables under Salem Harbor or along the railroad line.
Although the harbor option will appear as part of a nonbinding question on the Nov. 5 ballot, there seemed to be more support for the largely railroad route from the power plant substation to Canal Street, which backers said would avoid digging up neighborhoods and the downtown and be less costly.
“I just don’t understand it,” said Biff Michaud of the Salem Witch Museum, located on Salem Common. “Go down the railroad tracks.”
Michael Harrington of the Hawthorne Hotel, also on the Common, said that when the railroad route was raised at earlier meetings, National Grid representatives “did not demonstrate that they had convincingly looked at this alternative ...”
The railroad route, first raised by Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent, has the backing of several councilors.
“This is the least disruptive,” Councilor-at-large Bill Legault told the state board.
Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 200 members in the downtown, said National Grid shouldn’t be allowed to reject the railroad option just because it may pose challenges.
“Difficult is not a reason not to do things,” he said.
Harrington and others asked the board to get National Grid to explain why its cost estimate for installing cables under Salem Harbor soared from $42 million to well over $100 million in less than two years.
In her letter, Driscoll asked the state board to require National Grid to fund peer reviews of the proposed project and of “potential alternatives.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.