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Coralville planning ‘significant undertaking’ of moving power lines underground
2020 derecho caused city to take a closer look at utility resilience
CORALVILLE — When the derecho came through Iowa in August 2020, Coralville resident Mark Harris lost power for five days.
He recalls there being “a lot of variability” about when power came back on for residents in the city. His neighborhood was one of the last to be reconnected.
“We were one of the last houses (in Coralville) to get our power back on,” said Harris, who has lived in his house on 12th Avenue since 1998. “I think that points to me what a tremendous undertaking it is for them to try to get power back for a large area and how it's going to take time to do that.”
“If burying this all underground can make that less of a problem,” he said, “I'm all for it.”
The city of Coralville is exploring relocating overhead power and communications lines underground to make the utility lines less vulnerable to severe storms and weather. The city estimates the nearly $20 million project also would improve utility reliability for more than 9,000 Coralville residents.
The project area includes the MidAmerican Energy service area. This area is south of Interstate 80 and often referred to by residents as “Old Coralville” because it’s the original part of town. Residents who live in the part of the city north of I-80 are served by Linn County REC and largely have their power lines underground already.
Coralville utility resilience project map
The city of Coralville is applying for federal and state funds to relocate existing overhead powerlines to underground in the MidAmerican Energy service area. The project would improve utility reliability for more than 9,000 residents, according to the city. The project service area is shown in green. The bulk of project construction would occur in the blue shaded area.
Source: City of Coralville
The project is in the early stages as the city works to secure state and federal funding to help pay for the effort. The city is working with Muscatine-based engineering firm Stanley Consultants on the application, which was submitted this month.
Harris said he is excited about the project. Other Coralville residents told The Gazette they are supportive and curious to learn more about construction impacts in their neighborhood.
The city held its first informational meeting about the project earlier this month. General details and a tentative schedule were shared, but specific design details and project development would occur once funding is secured.
A decision on the city’s application is anticipated in November. If all goes as the city hopes for, a design process could begin in December with construction potentially starting as early as summer 2024. Construction would take about two years.
I live in this area. What can I expect?
Once construction begins, yard impacts and access issues should be expected, Eric Kamm of Stanley Consultants said. The goal is to minimize impacts to residents, restore property to its original condition and keep residents informed throughout the process, he added.
Specific details — such as neighborhood-by-neighborhood design, impacts and schedules — will be more clear once the city secures funding and the design process begins.
Residents’ electrical service should not be impacted during construction, besides outages during the switch-over, which will be planned, Kamm said. This will likely happen neighborhood by neighborhood, and residents will be notified.
“With proper coordination and communication, we should be able to mitigate any interruptions to your electrical service,” Kamm said.
There will not be any upfront costs to the homeowner or property owner. For example, costs associated with changing the connection would be funded by the grant, Kamm said.
Based on preliminary information, the proposed project would not impact customer rates in Coralville, according to MidAmerican Energy.
The city plans to hold additional public meetings, as well as inform residents by mail and social media of the project once it begins.
Kamm said because this is a city project, the city has a lot more leverage during the design process to ensure various aspects are addressed and planned out as resident questions and concerns arise.
“It would be our goal to make sure that we communicate everything really thoroughly and carefully to people and to minimize any disruptions, whether it be power or to their yards,” Deputy City Administrator Ellen Habel said.
Derecho brought need to the forefront
The goal of the project is to develop “a more resilient, reliable electric system,” Eric Kamm of Stanley Consultants said.
The city has been aware of the challenges of overhead power lines, but the derecho brought the need for a solution to the forefront, said Ellen Habel, deputy city administrator. Residents lost power for four to five days, with internet service taking longer to come back online in many cases.
There derecho impacted 95 percent of MidAmerican customers in Coralville, MidAmerican spokesperson Geoff Greenwood said. Within nine hours, MidAmerican restored service to about half of those customers.
The storm caused severe, widespread damage across the state, which included downed overhead lines, utility poles and electrical components, Greenwood said. Downed trees and tree debris damaged the company’s system and had to be removed before repairs could start.
After a storm that damages power lines, utility companies must navigate streets and backyards covered in debris, which can delay repairs and service restoration.
“They have to try to navigate these yards that have fences or swing sets, or big trees or landscaping and trying to get to those backyards to do the repairs can be really tricky,” Habel said. “It just makes the whole repair process longer.”
Habel said 60 to 75 percent of the city’s total debris came from south of I-80, which is the project area. Habel said 60 percent amounts to about 6,500 cubic yards of compacted debris.
Moving power lines underground also will increase safety following a severe storms, as well as be easier to maintain and give residents more use of their yards, Kamm said.
Longtime Coralville resident Dolores Slade, who has lived in her home on 13th Avenue since 1960, fully supports the project and addressing the overhead lines. Slade and her late husband, Russell, built the home and raised their family there.
Slade’s home wasn’t directly impacted during the derecho, but she recalled a previous storm when a tree limb fell into her yard and took down her power lines. She was out of power for a week. Slade has also had issues with squirrels chewing through the power lines, which has caused the most damage.
Habel said the nearly $20 million project is a “significant undertaking.”
The city received $200,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop the budget and project application, which was due this week. The city will hear later this year — likely sometime in November — if the funds were awarded.
The city is seeking $13.72 million from FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, and $1.96 million from Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The application to FEMA’s program requires a local match, which the city expects would be $3.92 million. MidAmerican and the city are in discussions about cost-sharing.
MidAmerican’s financial contribution would go toward the city’s share. The city will likely bond for the project, but that will depend on how much MidAmerican contributes.
The grant and the local match are expected to cover all construction costs. Based on preliminary information, the proposed project would not impact customer rates in Coralville, Greenwood said.
Habel said the city initially planned to pursue a smaller area for the project, but Iowa Homeland Security encouraged expanding to the entire MidAmerican service area.
Greenwood said there hasn’t been a city in MidAmerican’s service territory that has looked to pursue an underground conversation project of this scale or through the same funding mechanisms that Coralville is looking at.
MidAmerican, however, has worked with cities on “many smaller-scale conversion projects,” Greenwood said. These projects often are associated with a public works project, such as water, sewer or road improvements, he added.
In Cedar Rapids, the city will consider moving power lines underground on a case-by-base basis if the scope of a roadway project allows, said Brenna Fall, assistant public works director.
Cedar Rapids is applying for the FEMA funding under the program for the city’s E Avenue detention basin expansion project, said Ben Worrell, the city’s sewer and utilities program manager.
Since the FEMA program is annual, Habel said Coralville could apply again next year if this application is unsuccessful. It’s a project that would be difficult to pursue without grant assistance, she said.
“We're really hopeful,” Habel said. “We think it's a very deserving project, and that there's a really good case for it.”
Marissa Payne of The Gazette contributed to this report
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