South Minneapolis hearings on high voltage powerlines


Residents of Minneapolis and beyond have one more month to have their views considered by a judge about where and if a new stretch of high voltage power lines go up in South Minneapolis. At the center of this controversy is the Midtown Greenway and adjacent neighborhoods, whose location has been chosen by Xcel Energy  for construction of the new lines.

A dozen Xcel Energy representatives  and representatives from various neighborhood groups and the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials offered testimony April 5 and 6 about whether and where a new stretch of high voltage power lines should be built in south Minneapolis. They spoke at public hearings sponsored by the Public Utilities Commission. Administrative Law Judge Beverly Heydinger presided over the four public hearings, which were held Plaza Verde in Minneapolis.  The public has another month to submit written comments. (See sidebar.)

Public comment

The deadline for public comments is May 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm. Comments can be sent to Beverly Jones Heydinger, Administrative Law Judge, P.O. Box 64620, 600 N. Robert St., St. Paul, MN 55164-0620. Comments can be emailed.

Xcel’s plan has been met with strong resistance by the city of Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway Association, and several neighborhood groups in south Minneapolis. They see the high voltage power lines as a threat to green space, property value, investment and a community that they say has worked hard to pull itself out of poverty and crime.

 Xcel Energy contends more power lines are needed due to increased energy demands in the area. “A couple years ago the capacity planning engineers decided they had reached a point where something needed to be done because growth is continuing,” said Betty Mirzayi, Transmission Project Manager at Xcel.  “You’ve got the hospital [Abbot Northwestern and Children’s Hospital], Wells Fargo campus, new more dense housing units going in and that is projected to continue for some time yet to come.” She says that an increase in outages and weak signals means that Xcel can no longer reliably serve the area without installing a new line.

Xcel filed an application in the spring of 2009 to the Public Utilities Commission for a 1.4 mile long power line connected on each end by two substations. The proposed lines would carry far higher voltage than the smaller lines commonly seen on city streets. At 115,000 volts, the new lines would be held up by nineteen 75-foot high poles situated about 500 feet apart, on average. While Xcel’s preferred route is along the Midtown Greenway, they have proposed three alternative routes and twice as many substation locations. 

The city of Minneapolis, neighborhood groups and most of the people who spoke at the hearings said that an underground route on 28th Street would be less damaging to the community. While an above ground route would cost about $3 million, the cost of an underground route could exceed $16 million. Who pays for the cost difference is in the hands of the Public Utilities Commission and Judge Heydinger’s recommendations. The commission has the final say on what construction type is viable. If it decides that an underground route is the only viable solution, Xcel will pick up that extra cost. But if they suggest that an overhead line is feasible, and the community is against it, the cost would have to be picked up by the city and ultimately through higher taxes.

Some of the residents who spoke at the hearing gave emotional testimonials about a neighborhood that until very recently was awash in violent crime and desperation. Robert Lilligren and Gary Schiff, both city council members who have constituents in the affected neighborhoods, spoke passionately about how the neighborhood has become a bastion of progress and an example of how people can turn things around. Schiff in particular spoke of how Midtown’s regression in the past 40 years correlates with older streetcar lines being pulled out and a resulting shift of investment to the suburbs.

“Midtown has been an area that has struggled with violent crime, gangs, poverty, environmental pollution, slumlords and human trafficking,” said Schiff. “The community response to these issues was not to run away. It was to embrace plans that would bring people back to this neighborhood where alternative transportation would define a new mode of living. This is a transit corridor with a bike route today and a future streetcar route that is the heart of transit oriented development that we are embracing as a community. These high voltage power lines will not allow that future to take place.”

Linda Jensen spoke of the astonishment she felt after leaving the Midtown area in the 1980s and returning a year ago. “There are millions of dollars worth of new housing development and consequently business development,” said Jensen. “It is happening all along the Greenway, the Greenway is driving it. I can’t imagine buying a condominium with a starting price of $300,000 and having bought it, looking out at transmission lines.”

A health concern voiced at the evening hearings was the effect that electromagnetic waves from the power lines would have on cyclists and other people in the area, particularly children and pregnant women. Xcel has pointed out on its website that magnetic waves are everywhere, from household appliances to television sets, and that the amount of radiation from power lines pose no health threat to the general public. Both the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency have stated there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that magnetic waves from power lines cause health problems such as cancer.

City council member Cam Gordon pointed out that these inconclusive findings still affect perception among the general public. “We do know that the perception of those dangers has a serious impact on where people chose to live and where they want to raise their children. Those perceptions will also potentially have some very negative impacts on the area here, as people look at the high voltage power lines and decide they don’t want to invest in this community and this isn’t somewhere where they would want to come and raise their children and be involved.”

Paula Holden, of the Corcoran Neighborhood Association, pointed out that these perceptions of the potential effect of a power line on the greenway have been voiced directly to the Midtown Greenway Association. “We know that emails to Tim Springer [of the Midtown Greenway Association] from other developers, several [developers] have said they would not consider development along the greenway for similar reasons and overall adverse affects on marketability.”

Judge Heydinger has stated that her recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission will be based on several criteria, including the views of the public, the energy needs of South Minneapolis as well as a draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted earlier this year.