Property aquistion hurdle sends Eversource underwater cable plan back toward Veterans Park dock

Chief of Operations and Public Works Vanessa Valadares presents the current planned route for
Eversource transmission cables under the Norwalk River, on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — First, Eversource’s high voltage lines were planned to be rerouted underneath the Veterans Park Dock for the Walk Bridge project. Then they weren’t. Now they’re back again.  And although the Harbor Management Commission is one of two Norwalk bodies slated to get more cash in compensation from Eversource due to this development, the Commissioners are not pleased.

When Eversource initially planned to install the transmission cables under the dock, Harbor Management Commissioners kicked up a fuss and got the route changed.  But now the City has given the utility a green light to tunnel under the dock after all.

“We’re going to have to put a warning notice of high-tension wires, you know, right on the visitors dock … I’m just hoping it doesn’t destroy the city’s access point, as far as the boating,” Norwalk Harbor Management Commissioner John Pinto told Common Council members, who nevertheless then voted unanimously to go ahead.

Eversource reps, sharply questioned at a recent meeting, maintained that the two 115-kilowat lines buried at least nine feet down, wouldn’t impact marine life nor affect the visitor’s dock in any way.

The transmission lines currently cross the Walk Bridge and must be replaced before the Connecticut Department of Transportation begins dismantling the bridge after constructing replacement parts off-site.

“We can’t unplug the city of Norwalk,” said Marcia Wellman of Eversource project outreach services, at the Nov. 16 joint Shellfish Commission and Harbor Management Commission meeting.

The transmission lines will start above ground at the Norwalk Police Station, before moving underground to cross South Main Street and then continue under Elizabeth Street, cross under Water Street and then tunnel under the water, eventually surfacing close to Route 136, according to Chief of Operations and Public Works Vanessa Valadares. They will come back above ground along the train tracks at the Fort Point intersection.

Police will be able to use their same parking spaces and the public won’t be affected when going to police headquarters, Valadares said. There will be no parking on Elizabeth Street but the road will only be closed for one brief period because the 10-foot deep cable will come close to the centerline, making it impossible to route cars around it. Drivers will also be inconvenienced when the tunnel goes under Water Street, with only one travel lane open for each direction.

City officials began discussing the project in 2016, agreeing in 2018 that the lines would go under the river to avoid them going overhead through South Norwalk, Valadares said. Though Harbor Commissioners had succeeded in getting the lines rerouted away from the visitor’s dock, the plan hinged on two Water Street property acquisitions. One fell through.

“The negotiation was unsuccessful,” Valadares said, adding that the City hopes to buy the other parcel from the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

The route therefore has to move 40-50 feet south and if it goes any further in that direction, the project “would require significant excavation in Veterans Memorial Park,” said Ken Roberts, major projects manager for Eversource. “We don’t want to do that.”

“We went over 17 or 18 proposals for the route,” Valadares said. “…This is the route that we confident believe that will cause less disruption throughout.” It keeps the vaults close to Fort Point Street, where they can receive maintenance every five years without disrupting the park.

Valadares said the 17 scenarios, studied over seven years, also considered the nearby historic buildings with an aim to keep vibrations low. Underground cables won’t be installed under buildings, Roberts said.

The work shouldn’t affect boating season, Valadares said.

Another Eversource project manager, Evan Piacente, said the cables will be eight or nine feet below the dock pilings. The lines “generally have a 30-to-40-year lifecycle” and when it’s needed, they would be pulled out and replaced without .

Yes, there would be restrictions on replacing the docks, Roberts said. Eversource would want to work with the City to make sure it’s done safely, according to Piacente. Construction would be prohibited three feet above and five feet around the cables.

The five-foot radius would be easy to work around and Eversource is confident it can work with the city on the three foot issue above the cables, Roberts said.

If the City wanted to duplicate the docks in their present position, there would be no problem, Piacente said. “We have no idea what the intentions are for the future. But in passing discussions with the city, we know that there’s been some talk about expanding this area as the growth, new demand increases. And if this is the location you want to do it, you could build a very similar finger dock, just inside or just outside this location with very little problem.”

Harbor Management Commissioner Alan Kibbe suggested that there are less impactful ways of tunneling under the river. Roberts said Eversource studied the suggested micro-tunneling and it “involves considerably bigger pits on each side of the river… one of the biggest problems that we faced with this design was that you have to come up out of the bank of the river.”

Piacente said Eversource is “lucky” to have 90 Water St. on one side and Veterans Park on the other, to allow the cable to get as deep as possible, given the trajectory and the amount of bend involved.

The drilling has a two-foot variation but given the depth under the pilings, they shouldn’t be affected even in the worst-case scenario, Valadares said.

Harbor Management Commissioner Laurie Jones asked if energy emissions from the cables would affect marine life.

The cables are so deep that heat will dissipate quite quickly, and be gone within three feet, Piacente said. Ian Cole, who is with Eversource’s licensing and permitting department, said they’ll be 30 feet under the river bottom.

Eversource commissioned two studies, including a site-specific shellfish study, which “indicated that that there would be no significant impact to local selfish populations,” Cole said. Roberts added that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) will be reviewing the results as the permitting process proceeds.

“The channel bottom will not see any temperature difference than it is today,” Piacente said.

“This is being recorded, I hope,” Mayor’s Water Quality Committee Chairman Joe Schnierlein retorted, marking his skepticism. “… I am a scientist. It doesn’t make sense to me that the heat doesn’t rise, it stays confined into that lower area.”

“The technology is not new,” Roberts said.

Eversource has agreed to increase its compensation to the City from $404,000 to $416,000, money that will be used to underground Elizabeth Street utilities and do streetscaping there, Valadares said. The Harbor Management Commissions’ compensation increases from $25,000 to $40,000, because of the increased impact to the docks, and the Shellfish Commission will receive additional compensation of $10,000.

The expected easement in Veterans Park has expanded, she said. Eversource should be working in Veterans Park about 30 days to bury pipes for the cables, but in the winter so impact to playing field usage should be low.
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The previous easement plan for Veterans Park, top; the current plan, bottom.

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