Underground power

Today’s quiz: What do New England coastal regions and the Caribbean islands have in common? The answer is simple – weather. Sort of.

It’s actually more the impact of the weather and the revelation of how vulnerable our power systems are to the forces of nature. Take away the snow and the sub-freezing temperatures and what you have in common with the Caribbean is heavy winds downing power lines and leaving wide swaths of towns in the dark for days.

But in all the stories that have been written in the past few weeks about the trio of nor’easters that hit the region and took out power for hundreds of thousands of homes, no one has looked at the idea that maybe our aging and archaic approach to putting wires on poles as opposed to burying them is at least partially to blame. Only the Massterlist broached the issue after recapping the aftermath of Tuesday’s blizzard.

Down in the Caribbean, it took more than four months to restore power on islands such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. John after last fall’s double whammy of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Pictures from the tropical playgrounds in mainstream and social media showed a tangle of wires all around the territories while residents had to wait for crews with bucket trucks and new poles to be ferried over. And they’ve since erected the new poles and lines which may only last until the next hurricane.

The same is happening in New England, though for slightly different reasons. While burying lines in the sparsely populated islands makes little economic sense, the growth and development of Massachusetts over decades has made retrofitting cities and towns with underground power lines a cost-prohibitive nightmare. But is it time to consider that the accumulative cost – not to mention disruption of lives and threat to safety – is worth pondering the idea of planting power lines and taking down the utility poles?

In last week’s storm, nearly a half-million people lost power and some towns weren’t restored for more than a week. There were still some scattered, albeit minimal, outages as Tuesday’s storm hit. With the third nor’easter in less than two weeks, another 240,000 homes across the state lost power, much of it along the North and South Shores.

In addition to the power lines’ vulnerability to winds, heavy snow, and falling branches, restoration of power is delayed during a storm because crews cannot safely go out in their trucks and up in the buckets while gale-force – in some cases, hurricane-force – winds continue to blow and wreak havoc.

Some cities, such as Springfield and Pittsfield, have put their lines underground in the downtown areas and many communities are now requiring new developments to have underground utilities, both for aesthetics and safety. But utilities say it’s not the panacea it appears to be. Burying wires can cost as much as 10 times the price of above-ground lines and their lifespan is about 30 years, compared with 50 for overhead wires. Also, they say, underground wires come with their own unique maintenance headaches.

But as the intensity and frequency of storms grow stronger, it may be time to revisit that thought process. When the same wires in the same towns continually get ripped from their poles and the same customers go days without power or heat, perhaps the math will say maybe it’s time to take our heads out of the sand and put our wires in.

JACK SULLIVAN


BEACON HILL

A Gloucester Times editorial praises Senate President Harriette Chandler for her call for more housing and transportation projects and her willingness to push for new revenues to help pay for them. “We don’t endorse all her ideas but we like how Chandler is thinking,” the paper said. A Herald editorial takes a dim view of her agenda, which it summarizes as a bid “to tax nearly everything that moves.”

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the panel may take up the issue of new revenues for the authority as early as this fall. He clarified that the discussion might start then but any decision would have to wait until the T is able to spend all the capital funds it currently has at its disposal, which he estimated would be three years. (CommonWealth)

A federal judge tossed Attorney General Maura Healey’s challenge to a Trump administration birth control policy. (MassLive)

Gov. Charlie Baker generally backs Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and the Department of Transportation on the $100,000 bathroom that was installed for the convenience of members of the Fiscal and Management Control and the MassDOT boards. (MassLive)

State Sen. Eileen Donoghue confirms she is applying for the city manager’s job in Lowell. (Lowell Sun)

The Globe offers a primer on the state’s new marijuana law and regulations.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Boston agency is set to vote tomorrow on a key set of tax breaks proposed for Amazon’s big expansion in the city’s Seaport. (Boston Globe)

Worcester’s crime rate continued its downward trajectory last year on nearly all fronts. There were five murders, down from eight the year before. (Telegram & Gazette)

A state arbitration panel ruled that the three-year contract between the Fall River police union and the city must stay in line with other municipal contracts, leaving the police with no wage increase for the first two years and a 2 percent hike in the third year. (Herald News)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson learned he was being replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo from a tweet by President Trump three hours before Trump called him to say he was fired. (Washington Post) A Boston Globe editorial says the Senate should use the Pompeo confirmation hearings to extract promises to bolster a State Department that has been withering.

Gina Haspel, nominated to replace Pompeo as CIA head, will face stiff opposition because of her oversight of the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” methods that included waterboarding. (National Review)

British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered 23 Russian diplomats expelled over the poisoning of an ex-spy. (New York Times)

ELECTIONS

Conservative Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby showers praise on Deval Patrick, saying Democrats could “do a lot worse” than to nominate the former two-term Massachusetts governor for president in 2020.

A special election in a congressional race, in a district won by President Trump by 20 points, was too close to call with Democrat Conor Lamb holding a minuscule lead but declaring victory and Republicans already talking about a recount and court challenge. (New York Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Quincy officials paid $125,000 to the owners of a now-shuttered downtown bar that claimed its business was disrupted when the city tore down a former parking garage and piled debris at the backdoor entrance to the bar. (Patriot Ledger)

An Airbnb watchdog website says Boston area hosts are jacking up prices for stays during next month’s Boston Marathon weekend. An Airbnb official says the figures are off — and charged that the website is funded by the hotel industry. (Boston Herald)

Netflix paid its queen less than its prince on its hit series The Crown. (Money)

EDUCATION

Students in Massachusetts plan to join with others across the country in staging school walkouts today calling for stricter gun control measures. (Boston Globe)

Williams College names Maud Mandel, a dean and professor of history at Brown University, as its president. (Berkshire Eagle)

A forum on funding of rural school districts focused on the state’s 30-year-old arbitrary public school funding formula. (Berkshire Eagle) A study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said school funding and transportation allotments in rural districts need to be revised. (Berkshire Eagle)

The Framingham School Committee voted to eliminate the $100 athletics fee, which had previously been reduced from $250, with the hope that it would enable more students to participate in team sports. (MetroWest Daily News)

Tufts officials dispute a Milford high school principal’s characterization of their research on civics education. (CommonWealth)

Parents and union drivers in Easton criticized a proposal by the School Committee to privatize special education transportation. (The Enterprise)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Norfolk County once again came out on top as the healthiest place to live in the state based on a range of indicators, according to the annual rankings in a nationwide survey. (Patriot Ledger)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The storm that battered Massachusetts yesterday left more than 140,000 customers without power as of early this morning. (Boston Globe) More than 200 trees in Nickerson State Park in Brewster have been felled by this month’s nor’easters. (Cape Cod Times)

Dennis officials are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn a judge’s ruling that the town must use sand from dredging to replenish a private beach owned by a neighborhood association. (Cape Cod Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Massachusetts police departments in 2016 had twice as many Taser guns as just three years earlier. (Boston Globe)

PASSINGS

Stephen Hawking, one of the best-known physicists of the modern era, who lived with ALS for more than 50 years, died from the disease at age 76. (New York Times)

Noted pediatrician and child development specialist T. Berry Brazelton died at age 99. (Boston Globe)