Friday, February 16, 2007

Poleaxed in Hillsdale

Last week I joined four Portland General Electric (PGE) employees near the site of the new Watershed Senior Housing building, which is under construction.

We had gathered in the biting cold to get a PGE cost estimate to underground utilities from in front of the building to the east property line of Papa John’s Pizza, a distance of 150 feet.

City Commissioner Sam Adams had wanted to know the cost, necessary information if we are to ever start cleaning up the overhead blight in the town center. Adams, mind, has made no promises. Still, we can hope....

Anyway, when our group began talking, the PGE delegation announced that the cost would be $250 per linear foot. That included the works—trenching, conduit, underground vaults etc.

Of course that would be PGE’s cost to the City. Comcast and Qwest would have costs as well, but the major part of the work would be done by PGE, a privately owned utility that owns the poles.

The $250 number surprised me, because eight years ago, a group of us who studied undergrounding for the City put the high end cost at $100 per linear foot.

But times, and costs, change.

Using a range finder, a PGE engineer determined the distance, half the length of a football field.

The $250 per linear foot figure and the 150 feet led logically to a stunningly simple result: $37,500.


Not so fast.

The leader of the PGE delegation began to scratch his head. Studying the overhead blight, he looked doubtful and tetchy. He was clearly unhappy with such simple math.

He asked if we wanted to underground the new light pole wires on Bertha Court too. They probably could be done fairly simply by boring a conduit line under the sidewalk rather than trenching and tearing up the pavement.

Sure, I said. “The vision is to get rid of the wires—all of them.”

More uneasiness. He had out his calculator now. I have no idea what he was tapping into it—and still don’t.

Finally he said, “I’m going to have to give you a different, more realistic figure. One we can live with.”

Prepare yourself, I thought. “OK, what is it?” I invited.

“It’s somewhere between $100,000 and $120,000.”

It was cold. We had been standing around for 45 minutes. The new numbers must have numbed me too. The man clearly was in no mood to argue. He looked vaguely pained. Besides, what do I, an undergraduate history major, know about the cost of undergrounding utilities except what I had learned 45 minutes before, some quaint notion about $250/linear foot.

Adams had wanted to know the PGE estimate and I wrote him the figure, with no editorializing. (Now, nine days later, he still hasn't acknowledged my e-mail and the number.)

In the day or two following the meeting in the cold, the whole experience gnawed at me.

In the course of 45 minutes, the PGE estimate had TRIPLED!

Better now than later, I guess. (Think OHSU tram) But then it occurred to me that time had gone by since we met in the cold with the range finder and calculators.

Where are the costs today? Where would they be tomorrow?

Could they be tripling every 45 minutes?

I am prepared to believe anything...and nothing.

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