By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — City voters will have a chance to weigh in on National Grid’s plan to install new, high-voltage transmission cables through Salem, after the City Council voted to include a question about the issue on Salem’s November ballot.
Called “Salem’s Big Dig” by some, the project would replace transmission cables between electric substations on Canal Street and the Salem Harbor Station power plant on Fort Avenue.
Many in the city support an underwater route through Salem Harbor, saying it will cause less disruption of neighborhoods, local businesses and traffic.
But National Grid rejected the idea of “horizontal directional drilling” under Salem Harbor earlier this year, say it would be too costly and too difficult to make repairs.
On Thursday, city councilors approved placing a nonbinding referendum question on the November ballot seeking public support for the underwater route. The board also voted to support a citizens petition that has been circulating this month to support the underwater route.
“I cannot support what they (National Grid) think is the easiest route,” said Ward 2 Councilor Michael Sosnowski. “We need to put this on the ballot. ... Let the people decide.”
If National Grid were to lay the new cables underground, instead of the water route, it would be comparable to the yearslong project to reconstruct Bridge Street, which disrupted neighborhoods, local businesses and the city at large, Sosnowski said.
The utility’s preferred route goes right through Ward 2’s residential, Salem Common neighborhood, then down to Congress Street and the Point neighborhood, and finally to South Salem.
Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel said he supports putting the issue on the ballot, but does not have much confidence that it will make a difference.
“In the end, we don’t have a lot of control over this,” said Turiel.
National Grid plans to hold a public meeting on the issue in late August. The construction project is expected to last as long as two years.
Ultimately, the project will need approval from the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board.
The company had planned to install new cables along two routes, including one along busy Derby Street, prompting fierce opposition from businesses in the area. National Grid later determined that both cables can run in a single duct down the second route: Fort Avenue, Forrester Street, Washington Square South, Congress, Fairfield and Cypress streets.
The company said it will still have to dig up Derby and Canal streets to remove existing cables.
Former City Councilor Steve Pinto also spoke against an underground route at Thursday’s City Council meeting, saying disrupting three city wards “is beyond comprehension.”
“(This is) something that should not happen,” he said.
“This is not a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue,” said Mary Madore, who lives on Forrester Street. “National Grid is prepared to devastate our city. Wards 1 and 2 will be ground zero, 3 and 5 are impacted, also 4, 6 and 7 will catch the fallout. Make no mistake, every ward and precinct will be affected.”
A National Grid official sent a letter to City Council President Jerry Ryan this week outlining the reasons they rejected the underwater route. The company also said it would release the study that showed the underwater route would be impractical, sometime in the next two weeks.
Ryan, whose brother works for National Grid, left the council chambers Thursday as the issue was discussed, to avoid conflict of interest.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.