- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh is calling for a formal investigation into Pepco’s response to the storm that thrashed the D.C. area Friday and caused widespread power outages, a multiday trial that has city leaders talking about a piece-by-piece effort to bury power lines underground despite an astronomical price tag.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, tentatively scheduled a roundtable on the utility’s performance for July 13.

Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, called for subpoena powers to get answers from the heavily criticized utility, part of a shift in focus from the city’s ongoing struggles in the dark to its ability to recover from future storms.

“I think neither the council nor the [Public Services] Commission has done enough to ensure reliability,” council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said, notingoversight has improved in the past year. “I think the council should do a more in-depth investigation of the response to this most recent event, as well as their preparedness for future events.”

At a sit-down meeting with Pepco officials Tuesday, city lawmakers agreed that underground lines spared much of downtown from the brunt of Friday’s derecho, a severe windstorm that quickly took out electricity through a wide swath of the mid-Atlantic region.

City Administrator Allen Lew told lawmakers that Mayor Vincent C. Gray is seriously considering a long-term capital project to bury power lines across the city. The plan could cost more than $5 billion and take decades, but council members say the expense and digging to put the lines in place may be worth it.

Mr. Lew said it is important to weigh the cost of burying lines against the economic impact of storms. Discussions are tentative and it is unclear how it would be funded or how long it would take, he said.

“We need to move in that direction and we need to move expeditiously,” Mr. Gray said Tuesday.

City lawmakers warmed to the underground initiative after talks with executives from Pepco circled around a common enemy: trees. Branches and decrepit trees were especially susceptible to Friday’s ferocious storm of straight winds, knocking out power lines in residential parts of the city.

“If everything was trees, then we need to go underground,” Ms. Alexander said.

Yet Ms. Cheh, who struck the toughest tone with the utility’s executives, doubted that fallen branches were the only culprits in this week’s outages, noting faulty equipment diminishes reliability.

Pepco officials warned that a massive underground project would drastically increase utility costs for ratepayers in the District.

“We’re not opposed to undergrounding,” Pepco Senior Vice President William Gausman said. “It has to be a partnership between you, the commission, ourselves.”

Council members said if they go forward with burying lines, they shouldstart at new construction sites, where road will be dug up anyway, and areas with the highest rate of outages.

“There are areas we should start with now,” council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, said.

As thousands still suffer through stifling heat this week, Pepco officials acknowledged they are feeling pressure to perform.

Mr. Gray stressed accountability as he swore in Sandra Mattavous-Frye on Tuesday to her reappointment as the D.C. People’s Counsel, an advocate for ratepayers in their disputes with utilities.

Ms. Mattavous-Frye said utilities such as Pepco, which has requested a rate increase, should not get more money simply because they ask. The utility must prove its reliability, she said.

“If we continue to do business as usual, we’re going to be right back to where we started from,” Ms. Mattavous-Frye said.

This most recent storm was exceedingly fierce and offered little notice, Beverly L. Perry, a senior vice president for Pepco, told council members. By contrast, the utility had five days to prepare for Hurricane Irene in August, she said.

Even so, irate customers are venting at call-center employees who are working 16-hour days.

“They get a lot of badgering,” Ms. Perry said. “They get some serious punches.”

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