Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns would like to see Evanston consider burying the overhead transmission lines that bisect the Second and Fifth wards, opening opportunities to develop the area.

At the Aug. 31 City Economic Development Committee meeting, Burns declared the lines represent “just a terrible use of space.” Burying the lines in the two wards, he argued in his proposal, would not only improve the appearance, but would also provide an opportunity to develop the properties whose airspace the power lines currently occupy.

Evanston Council member Bobby Burns wants the City to look at removing or burying power lines that run overhead in a swatch of the City’s Second and Fifth wards. (RoundTable photo)

The power lines originate at the ComEd substation located just off Emerson Street  near Lyons Street, wind their way west to Skokie along the Yellow Line CTA tracks and then head north along the Edens Expressway, said Paul Zalmezak, the Economic Development Manager, in a brief background memo on the issue.

The current uses of the land include a parking lot on the property for buses from Positive Connections (formerly Robinson Bus),  a U.S. Post Office maintenance facility, an auto repair shop and Tapecoat, a plastic coating company that neighbors have accused in the past of emitting foul odors.

Burns’ description of the area’s current use at the committee meeting was a bit more succinct: “It’s basically this whole space is parking lot, parking lot, air polluter and then the substation…,” he said. “It’s just a terrible use of space. I would highly doubt that it is creating a lot of jobs and local employment opportunities and it’s [the power lines] zooming all the way out.”

The Jacob Blake Manor, a retirement community for older adults is located just across the street from the properties.

“And that would be a wonderful opportunity if they could walk across the street and have access to a nice walking and bike path, nice outdoor [seating] areas, some better options retail and commercial,” he told committee members.

“I’m not saying we don’t need a substation or power lines,” he said, “but we need to find a better place for them to be, and I don’t think’s it’s right in the Fifth Ward in a residential area where [it] could benefit from more commercial, retail [and] open space.”

Other committee members spoke in support of exploring the issue, particularly with the American Recovery Protection Act funds as a possible funding source for what would be an expensive initiative.

Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and a member of the previous Council, noted that when the committee explored the issue in the past, “in terms of shared costs, I think it was a million dollars per [utility] pole.” He said the committee looked at different models, reflecting what that would mean for residents on their electricity bills.

If the City were to move forward, he said, “It’s something that we would want to possibly utilize our ARPA funds. There are also funds at the Cook County level and maybe even at the State level. I think if it’s going to happen now would be the best time.”

Evanston Council member Bobby Burns wants the City to look at removing or burying power lines that run overhead in part the City’s Second and Fifth wards. (RoundTable photo)

Fourth Ward Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, who spent two terms on the City’s Utility Commission before his election to the Council in April, said starting with the External Affairs Coordinator for ComEd, essentially the company’s point person, makes sense and should provide the City with “some ballpark answers fairly quickly on the proposal.”

“This is going to be somewhat less than a bajillion dollars but not cheap,” he cautioned members. “What we’re talking about here is this is a substation,” he said, adding that its “high overhead lines, high voltage lines go to the power plant that brings electricity to us here in Evanston. This substation then takes the high voltage down to lower voltages and sends it to smaller poles that go in our alleys. So we need something like this somewhat close by.

“It happens to be there [at its current location],” he observed. “Could it be moved? Of course it could be moved. It depends on how financially feasible that is.”

Mayor Daniel Biss, also at the meeting, suggested the City might have a natural vehicle to explore the question.

Evanston is in the process of renegotiating its franchise agreement with ComEd. Biss, who heads the negotiations team, said the two sides have already had one session, which he characterized as “intense,” with the City pushing for a number of changes to the current agreement.

“I know that we have a long list of ‘asks,’” he said, “but I think making sure that this is on that list when we have our follow-up discussion with them would certainly be valuable.”

Biss, a former state legislator, also noted that the federal government is in the process of passing legislation that includes “very significant legislation, specifically for electric grid modernization.

“It’s not like we’re Chicago, we have a whole lobbying team in D.C., but it’s worth figuring out, however we can, if some of that funding can be accessed.

“I mean, the dollar numbers we’re talking about are going to require some help, and help from a government that has a mint would be great if we could print the money for it.”

Committee member Jeanne Lindwall, an urban planner professionally, also spoke to the expense of the project the City is likely to encounter, citing her past experience.

“Twenty years ago I worked with a community that had a lot of high-voltage lines going through and they did look at it and it was prohibitively expensive,” she said.

She said a quick Google search turned up a $750-a-foot cost to bury the lines, which would work out to about $4 million a mile.

That cost did not take into account other factors, such as the difficulty of moving lines underground, she said.

The City will also have to look at who owns the land and whether the high voltage lines are running on land that ComEd currently owns.

Winding up the discussion, Burns reinforced his concern that “we’re grappling with terrible use of land space, with the substation, Tapecoat and a waste transfer station all in a very tight area.

“So no matter how it happened, it’s not right, it’s not acceptable. But I think a good first step is starting with the numbers.” 

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.