R.I.P. the hydro lines on Elgin: We’re burying them after all

by Kathryn Hunt

To the surprise of many who had been involved in the planning and consultation process around the reconstruction of Elgin Street, the City announced at the end of August that the much-contested hydro wires would need to be buried under the street after all.

The reconstruction of Elgin Street has been a long time coming, and involves a large number of players. A project of this scale only happens every hundred years or so, and many different groups and interests have participated in consultations, working groups, meetings and presentations to determine the final form of the street.

One sticking point throughout the process has been whether or not to bury the wires, which are currently suspended above the street on poles.

When the functional design plan for the project was approved by City Council in May of last year, the conclusion seemed firm: the wires could not be buried.

Through at least three working group meetings, residents and business owners argued that burying the wires would help to reduce demands on sidewalk space, improve the visual appeal of the street, and make the electrical system more resistant to severe weather. But the conclusion of the designers was that it was too expensive to bury the wires: when Councillor McKenney began pushing to have them buried last year, she was told it would cost about $8 million.

Hydro Ottawa cited the expense of rewiring the connections to all the buildings, and said it would add six months to the construction time.

Even an offer by the business owners on the street to help foot the bill was rejected.

Work began on the first steps of the reconstruction in March, when Bell went in to rebuild the underground infrastructure, which has deteriorated and needs repair.

In August, infrastructure manager Alain Gonthier said in a memo to the City that the planners and Hydro Ottawa have decided that burying the wires actually makes more sense.

In part, this is because the wooden poles supporting them are reaching the end of their lifespan. They will need to be replaced anyway. But the new layout of the street means that the poles would need to be reinstalled in a non-linear pattern, according to Gonthier’s memo. This would mean including extensive support systems for the wires (for example, bracing cables), which there isn’t room for in the new street design.

“The direct impact of this non-linear option would compromise the complete design vision and functionality for Elgin Street and would impact the ability to meet current provincial accessibility requirements,” he wrote.

Replacing the wooden poles with concrete ones would eliminate some of the need for support systems, but concrete poles need to be sunk very deep and would also be expensive. The overhead wires are also too close to buildings already, Hydro Ottawa said.

So now, after more than a year of discussion, the new recommendation is to bury the wires after all. The cost of doing so is now estimated at about $3.1 million (down from the earlier $8 million), with the cost being shared between Hydro Ottawa and the City. The City’s budget for the whole project is $33 million.

The main phase of construction is scheduled to begin in 2019, and finish in 2020.