BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — More than 100 residents attended a community open house last night on National Grid’s plans to replace high-voltage transmission lines that run through the heart of the downtown.
Although construction is a year away, many people are concerned about a road project that will last two years and dig up several miles of streets lined with homes and businesses that are located between electricity substations on Fort Avenue and Canal Street.
Many who showed up at the Hawthorne Hotel reside on or near Derby Street, a roadway that narrows to one-way as it passes through an old, historic neighborhood. The current transmission lines, as well as one of the proposed new routes, go right down that street.
“We’re going to suffer through two to three years of this mess and not end up with anything better to show for it,” said Charles Hildebrand, who lives just off Derby Street.
In a conversation with a National Grid consultant, Hildebrand asked if anything is being done to protect historic houses, many of which sit on old foundations just feet from the roadway.
“We will do inspections of the homes,” said George DeLoureiro, one of the lead project officials.
National Grid officials told residents that they have worked in historic neighborhoods before, most recently on Nantucket, and will do everything possible to minimize impacts.
A few of those who came last night were just learning about the project, and for a good reason. They only recently arrived in Salem.
“We just moved in 10 days ago,” said Theodora Sobin, who moved from New Mexico to a home on Derby Street.
She said she was surprised to hear about the project and then somewhat relieved to be told it will be done in segments and that work in front of her home should last only two to four weeks.
Constance Rosen is a partner in the Jean Louis Pasta Shop, which opened just a few months ago on Derby Street. She had many concerns about the potential impact on a new business and how customers and food trucks will get to the store.
“We’re a complete new business in a new state,” she said. “We went through a lot to get this business rolling. Now, to hear this, it’s a little disturbing.”
In brief remarks to the crowd, Mayor Kim Driscoll said she is still trying to persuade state officials, who must approve this project, to examine a possible water route under Salem Harbor. The city has hired a utility lawyer, she said, who will make sure the state Energy Facilities Siting Board thoroughly considers a technology known as horizontal directional drilling, which involves laying the cables deep under the harbor.
“We’re going to work hard to try to move that up the (priority) list,” Driscoll said. “It’s not that that’s a panacea, but we really feel that should be further up the list and a real consideration. ... It would avoid much of the disruption.”
The mayor added, however, that it appears unlikely that option will be chosen.
National Grid officials said they hired consultants to examine the so-called HDD option, but found it failed on three key criteria set by the state: environmental impact, cost and energy reliability.
Drilling under the harbor would cost about $80 million, or almost twice as much as the two recommended land routes, utility officials have said. Drilling with high-pressure mud could damage the harbor floor, and repairing power lines deep under the harbor would be difficult, costly and involve long delays, they said.
And even if the underwater route was selected, National Grid officials said they would still have to dig up Derby and Canal streets to remove old transmission lines and would still have to lay cables down several Salem streets. For all those reasons, National Grid officials said they are not recommending the water route.
Many residents who came got notices from National Grid informing them that the proposed route goes right past their homes. Osvaldo Sanchez, who recently bought a house on Leavitt Street, was so concerned that he took time off from work to come.
“My concern is how long are they going to be digging in front of my house and how inconvenient will it be to get in and out of my driveway,” he said.
Driscoll told the crowd that her staff will work hard to lessen the project’s impact and will negotiate with National Grid to get something back for the city.
“There is going to be some mitigation,” she said.
She asked residents to contact her office with any suggested improvements the city might request from National Grid.
The transmission replacement project is tentatively scheduled to start in May 2014 and end in May 2016. National Grid files its proposal with the state board next month.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.