Power failures reveal aging Detroit infrastructure

AP News
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Posted: Jun 10, 2011 6:34 PM
Power failures reveal aging Detroit infrastructure

Aging power transmission lines that failed under the stress of high demand left a handful of Detroit's public buildings blacked out for more than a day, and provided a stark reminder of the rapidly deteriorating infrastructure in a city struggling to provide basic services.

Even patchwork repairs to power grids, water pipes and crumbling streets are proving too costly for cash-strapped cities like Detroit, which faces a $155 million budget deficit amid steady revenue losses.

To make matters worse, Detroit is believed to be one of only a few large U.S. cities that owns and operates a power system that provides electricity to customers. Detroit buys energy wholesale to supply city-owned buildings and entities like Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Centers.

It's something Mayor Dave Bing would rather see done by a private company.

"It's an antiquated system and we don't have the money to maintain it or make upgrades, especially if another provider ... can do it better," mayoral spokeswoman Karen Dumas said. "We can invest that money into something like parks or recreation."

Temperatures in Detroit topped 90 degrees earlier this week, peaking at 95 on Tuesday and easily topping the upper 70s average high for this time of year, according to Dave Kook, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oakland County's White Lake Township.

Thursday's outages began when three transmission lines at the more than 60-year-old Mistersky power station overloaded with increased demand, primarily from air conditioner usage, officials said. Officials were forced to shut down power to additional buildings, including city hall and a downtown convention center, to prevent the entire system from crashing.

The outage wasn't a first for Detroit, where downtown city buildings and a medical center also lost power for two days last July due to an equipment failure. And some city and county offices also closed for a day in April 2009 due to a partial power failure at the municipal center.

"It continually focuses people's minds on what we do well and what we don't do well," said city Chief Operating Officer Chris Brown.

All traffic signals were working again and power was restored to public buildings and Wayne State's campus by Friday afternoon, but officials could not immediately estimate the cost of necessary repairs and or the financial toll of the outage.

"The blackouts in Detroit don't just make it inconvenient or hotter for people, but are shutting down the city's economy," said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. "As those things start to become more prevalent, it's forcing a new conversation about the role of infrastructure in economic health."

DTE Energy Co., which sells the wholesale energy to the city, said in a Friday statement that it was in the early stages of assessing Detroit's public power system, at the city's request.

Like Detroit, Cleveland still provides electricity to city buildings, some residents, and commercial and industrial customers, said Shelley Shockley, marketing manager for the not-for-profit Cleveland Public Power.

Cleveland buys power off-market, but operates its own infrastructure and power lines and operating charges are passed on to customers pay for repairs and upgrades, Shockley said.

Fixes to Detroit's system come from the city's general fund.

Former Philadelphia Mayor Donna Cooper said the problem for many cities is that they have been funding capital costs on a pay-as-you-go basis as opposed to financing over years.

"How much are the transformer lines going to cost? That's purely a capital cost," said Cooper, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. "A lot of cities no longer own energy service. That's not unusual at all and probably a good deal for cities to get out of it."

Outside of selling bonds and adding more long-term debt to the city, Detroit's mayor will be hard-pressed to pay for upgrading or totally revamping the city's electrical system. Bing also is dealing with crumbling city streets, scores of broken or malfunctioning fire hydrants and other ills while trying to cut $200 million from next year's budget.

He's also trying to provide police, fire and other services for 700,000 people in a city designed for more than a 1.5 million residents.

Robin Boyle, a professor in Wayne State University's Center for Urban Planning, said Bing must first demonstrate how city lighting services can be re-engineered to more efficiently serve a much smaller population.

Then "he needs to go outside the city and find resources," Boyle said. "Rattle his can in Washington and with the state. It's not going to come from residents."