BY TOM DALTON
---- — A Salem neighborhood got a partial reprieve yesterday when National Grid announced it no longer plans to install an underground transmission line down Derby Street, a narrow roadway that runs through a downtown business district.
Not laying the new cable line on Derby Street could shorten by several months the time spent working on that crowded and busy street, according to state Rep. John Keenan of Salem.
“It’s good news in terms of it’s going to cost less and be much less disruptive to Derby Street,” Keenan said.
Derby Street won’t escape completely, however, since National Grid still plans to dig up the roadway to remove existing electrical cable lines.
No start date has been announced for this massive project, which some derisively call “Salem’s Big Dig.” It had been slated to start next year, but a National Grid spokesman was not able to confirm that start date yesterday.
The plans still must be approved by a state agency that oversees utility projects.
National Grid plans to replace two aging transmission lines with new high-voltage cables along a 1-mile corridor that extends from an electrical substation next to Salem Harbor Station to another substation on Canal Street.
The company says it wants to complete the work before a new power plant comes on line at Salem Harbor Station, which is scheduled for June 2016.
If there is cheering, or even polite applause along Derby Street, they are not happy around Salem Common, which now will bear the brunt of this project.
As part of yesterday’s announcement, National Grid said it plans to install both new transmission cables inside a single duct along a route originally planned for one cable. This route would go down Fort Avenue, over Forrester Street, along Salem Common, down Congress Street and through The Point and South Salem neighborhoods over to Canal Street.
“I still think it’s a bad plan, and it’s going to be very expensive,” said Mary Madore, a Salem Common neighbor.
The utility said it made this significant change after further engineering studies indicated there would be enough room under the streets along the Salem Common route to install a duct large enough to hold two transmission lines.
This new preferred route will mean “less intrusion into the community and will be a more cost-effective way of completing the project that will shorten the excavation period along Derby Street,” National Grid said in a press release.
While saying she “welcomed” yesterday’s unexpected announcement, Mayor Kim Driscoll said this is still going to cause disruptions in the city.
“Today’s update is good news for those along Derby Street,” she said, “but it still means our businesses and residents (along the Salem Common route) will experience some level of disruption for two to five weeks at some point in the next couple of years.”
There are others who criticize National Grid for not pursuing a water route under Salem Harbor to avoid both residential and business neighborhoods. The utility said the water route, using a technology known as horizontal directional drilling that would go deep under the harbor bed, is too expensive and would be too difficult and costly to repair.
One local businessman accused National Grid of considering its own financial interests above the interests of Salem residents and businesses.
National Grid is “simply driven by bottom-line economics at the hands of a hard-nosed, British-owned group ...” said Michael Harrington of the Hawthorne Hotel, which is located along the proposed route.
Behind the scenes, opponents to National Grid’s plans have been working on a ballot question that they hope to put before voters in November. No details have been announced.
As part of its new proposal, National Grid must submit an alternate route in its filing to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board. The company said it is considering a route under Fort Avenue, Webb and Andrew streets, Washington Square North, Hawthorne Boulevard, and Charter, Lafayette, Gardner and Canal streets.
A public hearing on the new plans will be held this summer, after which National Grid plans to submit its application to the state board, according to the press release. No date has been set for the hearing.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.