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Ark. legislator proposes power line study

Kelly p. Kissel, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- After a winter storm left more than a quarter-million Arkansas homes and businesses without power for part of a week, a legislator said Wednesday the state should study whether power lines can be buried at a cost that won't cripple the typical ratepayer.

An official with the Public Service Commission said the panel could conduct a review but predicted Arkansans would reject the higher bills that would be necessary to move wires underground.

"If you want a system guaranteed to not go out, it would be prohibitively expensive," said David Slaton, the chief administrative law judge at the commission.

Rep. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, said Wednesday he was alarmed that many Arkansans went without power for up to a week after a Christmas Day blizzard. He said that with society so dependent upon electronic communication, Arkansas should consider whether it's still more cost-effective to string its utility lines above ground.

"There should at least be a feasibility study done," said Woods, who will move to the state Senate this month. "We are an information-driven society. We have online banking. A large part of our economy is online. People stay in contact through email, social media sites, Facebook. We cannot have ice storms coming through and cutting you off from the rest of the world."

A powerful storm hit the southern Plains beginning Christmas morning and by the time it exited Arkansas 24 hours later, portions of the state had received a half-inch of ice and 15 inches of snow. It was the second extended outage in Arkansas in 12 years.

"If you lose power one day, that's one thing. After three or four days, you couldn't use a cellphone," Woods said.

Entergy Arkansas President and CEO Hugh McDonald said Saturday that the repair bills for last week's storm would run into the "tens of millions of dollars" and would be passed on to customers, who are currently paying a special 10-year, 92-cent monthly assessment for repairs made after a 2009 ice storm.

Utility spokesman David Lewis said Wednesday that moving power lines underground is not feasible but the company welcomed a separate review.

"It would be an unbelievably huge construction project," he said. Lewis didn't have concrete numbers but predicted the typical $100 monthly bill would "easily double" over a number of years.

"You can't argue with the logic of a feasibility study, but you won't be able to argue with the conclusions of it, either," Lewis said.

At the Public Service Commission, Slaton said most parts of Arkansas had few places where lines could be moved cheaply.

"We have rocky terrain and lots of trees," Slaton said. "In west Little Rock we have an inch of top soil and rest is solid rock."

And costs would be spread among all ratepayers, not just among those who have been in trouble spots over the years.

"Rate shock is defined as an increase in excess of 10 percent, and with the economy in the shape it's in, customers are even more sensitive," Slaton said. "This commission is sensitive to adding a 5-cent cost. We have a lot of people in Arkansas who don't make a lot of money. A lot are on fixed incomes."

Woods said he would likely submit a letter to the PSC on Thursday.

"I understand the cost and the investment — even if you draw up a 10-year or a 20-year plan — but cities should look at it for a long-term investment," Woods said. "In 2013, almost everything you have now depends on power. Due to changes in technology, any amount of time without power, that will impact your life."