Decision looms on power line request

OPH rockOAK PARK HEIGHTS — The Oak Park Heights City Council faces a short time to make a major decision.

City officials want to see Xcel Energy Co. power lines buried underground as part of utility relocation related to the upcoming two-year-long Minnesota 36 frontage road and approach work for the new St. Croix Crossing bridge.

But at a work session two weeks ago with officials from Xcel and the state Department of Transportation, the council’s request received a negative response from the utility company and MnDOT.

“The position of Xcel is they will not pay for it. MnDOT’s position is they will not pay for it,” said City Attorney Mark Vierling.

City staff was directed Tuesday to look at discussions city officials had late last summer with Gov. Mark Dayton that resulted in the governor making state funds available to help pay for utility relocation costs related to the MN 36 approach work to see if burying power lines at the Greeley Street-Oakgreen Avenue intersection could be paid for out of those funds.

The council wants the information by April 16, when city officials have another meeting with MnDOT’s St. Croix Crossing team.

The cost to put power lines underground at Oakgreen Avenue and MN 36 is substantial. In a letter to the council last month, Xcel estimates it would cost $175,000 to bury power lines at the intersection. Xcel estimates it would cost $850,000 to bury its lines in the overall MN 36 approach project area.

“$850,000 is obviously way too much,” said Mayor Mary McComber.

Vierling said the council must decide if it wants the lines buried at Oakgreen Avenue and challenge the stances of Xcel and MnDOT on the issue.

“You’re going to have to assume the risk. We’re going to have to make a decision and assume that risk and challenge (Xcel and MnDOT),” he said.

McComber said state Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo, was caught off guard when McComber explained the power line situation during a recent meeting McComber had with Lohmer and state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point. The mayor said Lohmer’s assumption was the money Dayton promised in August was to pay for relocating all utilities related to MN 36 approach work.

But at the March workshop, St. Croix Crossing Project Director Jon Chiglo told city officials that state law prevents MnDOT from paying to relocate utilities in state rights-of-way due to cost and liability.

“There’s no question the city thought we had that covered with the agreement with the state,” Vierling said. “Mr Chiglo said differently.”

City Administrator Eric Johnson said one reason city officials want power lines underground at Oakgreen Avenue is due to the number of power poles in that location.
“In this area, it’s unique. You have lots of impacts,” he said.

“I look at the aesthetics of it. The opportunity is now,” McComber added.

But Councilman Mark Swenson said he was reluctant to see the city pursue relocating the Oakgreen Avenue power lines without an agreement on who pays for the work.

“I think MnDOT is blatant that they’re not going to pay for it,” he said. “I’m not ready to take that risk. If I knew the state or Xcel was covering it, I would have no problem with it.”

Besides the time constraint, Johnson said the city faces another unknown with power line relocation issue.

“To whom do we send that letter. Who do we appeal to?” he asked.