ATC Arrogance

I was driving home recently, passing the local golf course, when I saw an American Transmission Company (ATC) contractor hacking off the top 20 feet of numerous evergreen trees, leaving a gapping hole and 20-foot-high stumps.

Why couldn’t ATC simply cut off just the few feet that are within the proximity of the overhead power line? Why did they tell the golf course management that they had no say in the matter? Why couldn’t they work out a compromise that addressed ATC’s needs as well as the concerns of the golf course? (Those trees have been there for 50 years or more and haven’t been a problem.)

I admit I have a bias towards saving majestic trees because, as a developer, I’ve planted thousands of trees on my properties and I know what they cost and how long trees take to grow to a decent size.

(I also remember, as a child, when the local utility company came to my home and asked me to step away from the sandbox so they could “trim” (a.k.a cut down) my climbing tree that shaded the sandbox. Instead, I climbed high up into the tree and refused to leave until they gave up.)

Fast forward: Today ATC is proposing to install high voltage overhead power lines along the Beltline highway in spite of overwhelming public opposition, safety issues, and property impacts. ATC is taking the same bulldog approach to trying to ram a decision through the Public Service Commission (PSC) in order to avoid having to address the concerns of those who are impacted, such as my company [T.Wall Properties], which owns property along the proposed route.

Recently the PSC, which regulates ATC, held hearings on the issue of going overhead vs. going underground, hearing testimony from the Coalition for an Underground Alternative, which opposes overheading the lines. In fact, there is so much opposition to ATC’s overhead lines that the Coalition has grown to include five cities (Madison, Monona, Fitchburg, Verona, and Middleton), Dane County, the Association of Towns and Villages, the UW Arboretum, the UW Faculty Senate, the UW Building and Facilities Group, and dozens of private businesses that will be negatively impacted. (My company is also a member.)

According to Brad Hutter, spokesman for the Coalition, ATC has changed their cost estimates repeatedly to try to support different arguments (with their new estimate being over twice that of ATCÕs original estimate), so the Coalition brought in its own national expert to get clarity.

Hutter said that James Simmonds, who was formerly the lead estimator for Utek, an underground utility installer, and who provided estimates for hundreds of underground utilities over his 40 years, refuted ATC’s cost claims, testifying that the real cost of installing underground is significantly less than ATC’s figures.

Even the Wisconsin DOT has issued a report warning of the additional deaths of motorists that will occur if the 120 foot high poles are installed in the highway “clear zone,” which is where (by regulation and highway safety standards) no objects are to be located. The DOT also pointed out that two-thirds of the poles will have to be relocated in the future to accommodate the planned expansion of the Beltline.

That’s right, ATC is going to have to re-install two-thirds of the route again, at even greater cost to the taxpayers (and greater profit to ATC) in the near future. Why bear the cost to underground the lines now when ATC can get paid to relocate the poles later?

Another significant safety issue is what they call the ice fall zone; roughly a sixty foot radius around each pole where melting winter ice will fall from the pole. A sheet of ice the size of a mattress falling a hundred feet would be, ahh, let’s just say, “a safety issue.” In some cases, ATC wants to locate poles adjacent to existing buildings so that the buildings and parking lots (where pedestrians will be walking) are within the ice fall zone.

In my opinion, ATC is trying to transfer the cost to the property owners and to the cities, since the cities will lose assessable value because of the obstructions the poles will create. This transfer of cost means the taxpayers end up paying the cost rather than ATC, and ATC certainly isn’t going to allow any new development within the ice fall zone, again reducing the cities’ assessable tax values.

Of course, then there are the aesthetic issues. ATC wants to use its chain saws to hack its way through the arboretum and likewise, ATC will cut down all trees and, landscaping that happen to be within a clearance zone around the electrical lines themselves — just like the trees they cut down recently on the golf course. Imagine that same look all along the Beltline.

From constantly changing its estimates, to playing games, to not caring about how it leaves the aesthetics of a property’s landscaping, to placing profits above the lives of motorists, ATC has a long way to go to win peoples’ trust. (Can you imagine me telling the building inspection department, “You know, it’s just cheaper to build the building this way; the customers’ safety is going to have to become secondary.”)

I admit I’m biased, but then I still
remember the last time a utility tried to “play” in my sandbox….

ATC Responds

ATC keeps the lights on in T. Wall’s sandbox

We at American Transmission Company (ATC) read with interest Mr. Terrence Wall’s column this month, characterizing ATC as arrogant and avoiding public concerns.

Over the past five years, we have reviewed Dane County growth trends, analyzed electricity loads, evaluated transmission line constraints, surveyed thousands of acres, mapped wetlands, studied hundreds of miles of existing transmission line corridors, and met with dozens of community leaders and elected officials about the need for a new transmission line. In addition, our staff hosted 22 public open houses attended by more than 3,300 people and regularly corresponded with some 13,000 Dane County residents, businesses and other stakeholders in an effort to address public concerns. Our five plus years of study and public outreach culminated recently in six days of public and technical expert testimony before the state’s Public Service Commission.

Only once during this extensive process did we hear directly from Mr. Wall via a 2006 letter in which he explained, “I am not opposed to high powered transmission lines in general, just when they are in my back yard.” He further promised to “employ all legal means necessary to prevent (a beltline route).”

Had Mr. Wall actively participated in the numerous fact-finding, interactive and regulatory opportunities available to him, he would have learned a great deal.

Mr. Wall would have learned that two routes for a much-needed Dane County transmission line — one being the beltline highway — are currently under PSC review, and that ATC does not have a preference. He would know that “overwhelming public opposition” to the beltline route is an unfortunate exaggeration. In fact, support for the beltline route was demonstrated at the public hearings and in the thousands of comments provided by the public in this case. He would have also learned that both routes have been vetted by the Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources and deemed reasonable, safe and acceptable.

Despite his affiliation with the Coalition for an Underground Alternative, Mr. Wall also does not appear to understand the operational, technical and reliability issues related to undergrounding; cost is only one factor. Mr. Wall’s arguments against overhead lines were debated extensively by experts during the PSC’s technical hearings in April. To further imply that businesses along the beltline will suffer because of the presence of high-voltage power lines is an odd claim given that Mr. Wall has developed a number of buildings — including one along the beltline and his own headquarters building on Madison’s east side — adjacent to existing high voltage transmission lines.

One of the most troubling things about Mr. Wall’s column is that when he finally did seek information from us and ask some questions recently — just days before submitting this column — he chose to disregard the information. He was offered a number of corrections to his claims, particularly on the issue of the golf course tree trimming, but chose to dismiss the facts.

We appreciate that Mr. Wall is a successful land developer and has been afforded a bully pulpit from which to write. What we find unfortunate is that he seemingly lacks the interest in securing the facts that are so important to his column. Fortunately for us, thousands of Dane County residents have been diligent in their pursuit of the facts over the past five years and have utilized the very inclusive regulatory process to affect the outcome of this project.

At ATC we take seriously our responsibility to help keep the lights on for homes and businesses in Dane County and to embrace a public involvement and regulatory process that we believe is fair and inclusive. We invite you to visit our Web site for more information.


Sarah Justus, Manager
ATC Local Relations