BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Opponents of National Grid’s plan to install underground transmission cables through the downtown are trying to place a non-binding referendum question on the November ballot seeking public support for an underwater route.
A group of business leaders and neighbors began circulating a petition this week in the hope of getting the issue before the City Council on Thursday night, its last meeting until September. They want the council to vote to add the ballot question.
“It’s an initiative petition,” said Mary Madore, a Salem Common resident who lives near the planned route. “We want to get enough signatures to get on the City Council agenda next Thursday.”
The petition needs only 10 signatures, she said, so they will definitely have that number and file it Monday with the city clerk.
The petition asks the public to support installation of a major portion of two electric transmission cables under Salem Harbor.
National Grid is replacing two high-voltage cables that run about a mile from a substation next to Salem Harbor Station on Fort Avenue to another substation on Canal Street.
The company had planned to install new cables along two routes: one that ran along Derby Street to Canal Street, and another through a Salem Common neighborhood, down Congress Street and through the Point and South Salem.
In a change of plans last month, National Grid said engineers have 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.
National Grid said it investigated the route under Salem Harbor, which would be accomplished by using a technology known as horizontal directional drilling, but determined it would be too expensive to build and too difficult to repair.
Supporters of the initiative petition contend the utility hasn’t made a convincing case against an underwater route, which they said would spare many residents and businesses from a major disruption and a construction project that could last two years.
Horizontal directional drilling “is being used by National Grid in a number of instances and it’s being used in the state of Massachusetts,” said George Carey, the owner of Finz Restaurant on Pickering Wharf, which is bordered by Derby Street.
“It can be done,” said Madore. “The question is why they don’t want to do it.”
If the council and mayor don’t act, petition supporters say they will launch a signature drive to place the question on the ballot.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.