PUD and City of PT win Historic Preservation Award

The Jefferson County Historical Society honored the PUD and the City of PT with a joint Certificate of Merit for work on Water Street to place overhead power underground in the Historic District. The project began in 2016 and was completed in 2020. Powerlines that used to block views and access to historic buildings now run below the streets and into the tunnels. General Manager Kevin Streett and Communications Director Will O’Donnell attended the event and received the award alongside City of Port Townsend Mayor Michelle Sandoval and City Engineer Laura Parsons.

More about the undergrounding project from the 2019 issue of the NWPPA Bulletin:

Port Townsend may or may not have ghosts, but it definitely has tunnels. Tunnels that run under the downtown: remnants (or ghosts) of an older part of town that once existed below the surface of the many well-preserved historic Victorian buildings above. This fall, Jefferson County PUD will be stringing fiber-optic cable in those tunnels as part of the last phase of an overhead-to-underground service conversion that the PUD began in 2018 in partnership with the City of Port Townsend.

Located on the northeastern-most tip of the northwestern-most landmass in the continental U.S.—the Olympic Peninsula, home of Olympic National Park—Port Townsend was and is a gateway to the calmer waters of Puget Sound for boats coming in from the Pacific. Like Seattle, Port Townsend was founded in the 1850s, and its original downtown was built out of wood along boardwalks at beach level.

By the 1880s, lumber barons and real estate speculators had moved in and were building a new downtown on top of the filled-in remnants of the old, this time out of red brick and stone with elaborate cornices and decorative spires. They were in a race against Seattle, Tacoma, and others to establish their town as the Key City, the primary protected deep-water port of the Puget Sound region.

Sailors, swindlers, Chinese immigrants, and pioneers swelled Port Townsend’s population to almost 10,000. By the mid-1890s, however, when it was clear that the long-hoped-for rail connection to Tacoma wasn’t coming, the boom became a bust. As the new century dawned, Seattle had become the Puget Sound’s primary port, and Port Townsend’s population rapidly fell by nearly half.

It’s only been in the last few decades that Port Townsend’s population has returned to 1880s levels; but being partly inhabited for more than a century also helped preserve it. No second wave of development ever arrived, and because of that, visitors to Port Townsend’s Water Street can still experience much of what the city was like when it was originally built. Depending on the day, you may even see people in full Victorian dress, riding Victorian large front-wheeled bicycles down the street.

In 2016, Water Street, Port Townsend’s main promenade, was showing its age. City of Port Townsend staff began notifying residents and business owners that the many layers of asphalt and cobble sandwiched together on Water Street were crumbling. And the water main buried in the middle of it wasn’t fairing much better. Both would need to be replaced.

According to City Engineer Dave Peterson, his team saw the opportunity afforded by removing the roadway to bring all of the utility infrastructure along the affected section of Water Street up to modern standards, and to put it underground.

Water and sewer were the City’s domain. Power, and to a lesser extent telecom infrastructure, was under the purview of Jefferson County PUD. The overhead service along Water Street had been a discussion point between the PUD and the City since 2013. The PUD wanted the city to remove the mature trees growing into the power lines. According to Peterson, the City wanted the PUD to remove the power lines running across the historic facades.

“For one, aesthetically speaking, it just looks better to have the power underground in the Historic District. Two is safety. Having live, three-phase service running in front of these old buildings makes it difficult for the fire department to respond, and it also makes it almost impossible for the building owners to do routine maintenance and things like painting,” said Peterson.

Despite the fact that the PUD had only been in the power business for a few years, and had plenty on its plate, Kevin Streett, then the electrical superintendent and now general manager, was up for the challenge of converting electrical and communications service from overhead to underground in the historic district.

Up for the challenge may be putting it mildly for Streett.

“It was just a cool project, really,” he said. “Working with the historical society, crawling through these old tunnels and underneath 150-year-old buildings, coring through seawalls that weren’t even on anybody’s drawings. Trying to lay it all out, it’s just been very interesting.”

According to Staking Engineer Russell Miller, who has spent many of his working days downtown coordinating with local businesses and construction contractors for the last year and a half, undergrounding the power downtown has been a “passion project” for Streett. “He loves it,” said Miller. “All the little details that would drive anyone else crazy, that’s what he lives for.”

Which isn’t surprising, given that Streett is the son of a nuclear engineer, and started his electrical career in his late teens working as a lineman during summers off from college. Streett played football for Boise State. He was a linebacker and looks it to this day––tall and broad, with tombstone hands and large, ever-present brown leather boots. After college, Streett travelled the world working on line crews in places like Kodiak, Alaska, and Saudi Arabia. He then spent more than 20 years as an operations manager of consumer-owned utilities, first at Overton Power District in Nevada, and then Navopache Electrical Co-op in Arizona.

Despite his deep roots in the dry inland West, Streett was enticed to make the journey over to the wet side when he saw an advertisement looking for help building a new electrical utility. The citizens of Jefferson County had voted in 2008 to authorize their local PUD to pursue the acquisition of its electrical grid from Puget Sound Energy. After years of negotiations, the two utilities settled on a purchase price and a transition date: April 2013. Streett was hired in November 2012. He had less than six months to hire and outfit a crew, order the trucks, and essentially build the division from scratch.

Or almost from scratch. As long-serving former commissioner Wayne King was fond of saying, though the PUD had purchased PSE’s former service building, nothing was left inside of it, “not even a screwdriver, or a single spool of wire.”

But the size of the challenge was exactly what drew Streett to the job. “I was intrigued,” he said. “I’d seen utilities build out into a new area, or takeover part of someone else’s area, but to do it from scratch, without even a single truck? It hadn’t been done in a long time.”

In fact, in Washington state, a public utility had not acquired service from an investor-owned utility in over 60 years. It was a historic achievement. Prior to hiring Streett, Jefferson County PUD had only managed water and sewer service for less than 5,000 customers with just eight employees and a budget of less than two million dollars.

The transition, as Streett is the first to admit, didn’t go easily. Streett described his crew’s response to the first big storm as being “like the Keystone Kops.” The struggling electrical division’s start-up foibles brought attention from Seattle news crews, and problems with its billing systems resulted in PUD staff members being yelled at in grocery stores. A conservative think tank even used Jefferson County PUD as a case study for the dangers of government going into the power business. But Streett and Jefferson PUD persisted, and recent audits have been clean, cash flow is positive, power is reliable, and rates have been stable. The district now provides power to over 19,000 customers and has installed a 45-mile-long fiber-optic network. As a result of taking the power system public, more than 40 new positions have been added to the PUD’s payroll, and millions more have been invested in grid modernization and improvements.

One of those improvements is the undergrounding of the electric service in downtown Port Townsend. Which, like starting an electrical utility from scratch, has not been without its challenges. A buried steel pipe brought Seattle’s tunnel boring project to a standstill. A piece of buried steel conduit delayed underground service to Port Townsend’s local Windermere Real Estate office for months. According to Special Projects Manager Scott Bancroft, a bit of trenching work took 160 days longer than scheduled due to permitting delays; the job itself required less than four.

Still, Streett says the job has gone mostly as planned and that the close working relationship he developed with City staff largely spared the PUD many of the permitting hassles it might have otherwise faced. “Much of the time, the city itself pulled the permit and we were able to jump in with them. There was a lot done by each party to make this project work as well as it has.”

Peterson agrees. “It’s been a great relationship for the City working with the PUD,” he said. “And it’s been good for the PUD to interact more with our businesses and residents. I know a lot of folks were surprised to see just how much conduit it takes to make all the underground connections.”

The first phase of work along Water Street began in January 2018 with the removal of the roadway and the laying of conduit; it concluded in late June of the same year. In October 2018, PUD contract crews began the conversion process for businesses along Water Street, one section at a time, beginning at the State Ferry Terminal between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. The ferry system’s three-phase service was the first section to go underground, with the waterfront strip mall adjoining it to the east next. Contractors installed new pad-mounted transformers and ran the new service through the conduit before disconnecting the above overhead service and removing the old overhead transformers.

Work continued section by section through May 2019. As they did in 2018, the PUD and its contract crews suspended work downtown during the summer months. Port Townsend is a popular tourist destination and host to many summertime festivals. When work resumes in October 2019, the last section of service between Tyler and Taylor along Water Street will be pushed through conduit and connected to customer meters and the new transformers set behind the buildings.

Of course, the question all the residents and business owners downtown want an answer to is “When are the poles coming down?” According to PUD Engineering Supervisor Jimmy Scarborough, the power poles and remaining deenergized wires should come down in early 2020. Though the PUD will have all of its working assets removed in October 2019, the poles still host communications cables for CenturyLink and Wave Broadband, as well as city streetlights. Wave and CenturyLink have been notified of the impending pole removal; the streetlights will be ordered this summer and installed in the fall.

When the PUD’s power poles finally come down along Water Street in early 2020, Financial Services Manager Mike Bailey pegs the total cost to the PUD to be around $1.1 million. That’s assuming the City and Streett don’t begin plotting the undergrounding of yet another section of the town’s electrical service, as has happened at least twice already, though farther away from the water.

For Streett and Peterson, when a partnership is this strong, it’s just made sense to keep digging.

 

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