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Costs be damned: Austin wants to bury power lines

Power lines crashed into a Central Austin backyard after an electrical pole was compromised by fallen tree limbs.
Renee Dominguez
Roughly 5,000 miles of Austin Energy transmission lines are on utility poles rather than underground.

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The Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously approved two resolutions to study burying power lines in the wake of massive power outagesthis year that left more than 400,000 without electricity at one point.

The city’s public utility has previously said retrofitting above-ground lines could cost billions. Austin Energy has roughly 5,000 miles of transmission lines on utility poles, and experts say the cost to retrofit them could be roughly $1 million per mile. Austin’s bedrock of dense limestone and issues related to property rights could also hamper the process.

Council Member Ryan Alter’s resolution pushes city staff to identify properties that could benefit from underground transmission lines, including areas that have historically struggled to maintain power in inclement weather, city wastewater facilities and critical infrastructure like EMS stations.

Alter's resolution points out the city has made progress burying power lines in new developments. In 2021, nearly 60% of Austin Energy's lines were buried, compared to just 37% in 1997. All told, the city has 12,000 miles of power lines, with approximately 7,000 underground.

Another resolution passed Thursday, authored by District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, asks the city to require crews working on infrastructure projects like the multibillion-dollar Project Connect to bury transmission lines. It also directs the city manager to identify projects already in the works that could become pilot programs for a larger-scale plan.

Fuentes said in light of the recent power outages — and the outrage that ensued — the city should seriously consider burying more lines.

“It’s on us to create a more resilient Austin,” she said, “and these … policy items before us [are]  that next step in the process to explore how we can bury our power lines.”

City staff and the city manager have six months to report back to council on progress.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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