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Electric upgrades damage multimillion street renovation

By Melissa Crowe
Jan. 5, 2013 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 5, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.

A new utility pole on Sam Houston Dr. Some residents are displeased with the location of the poles, as they are in the way and obstruct the walkway.

By the Numbers: AEP Texas

• Serves more than 1 million electric consumers in the deregulated Texas marketplace.

•  Major cities served include Corpus Christi, Abilene, McAllen, Harlingen, San Angelo, Vernon, Victoria and Laredo.

• Ranks among the nation's largest generators of electricity, owning almost 38,000 megawatts of generating capacity in the U.S.

• Its 39,000-mile network is the largest electricity transmission system in the U.S.

Source: AEPTexas.com

Ribbons of sidewalk outlining Sam Houston Drive from Navarro Street to Business U.S. 59 are small change compared to the more than $21.5 million spent on the road's decade-long expansion.

When AEP Texas began upgrading its wooden utility poles to the Magruder Drive power station, the only place for the steel behemoths along Sam Houston Drive was in the middle of the walkway.

The new poles more than block the view from Susan Ocker's driveway. The 44-year-old Victoria business owner said the new utility poles signal disregard for tax dollars and safety.

Ocker owns The Sunshine House Preschool at the corner of Evergreen Lane and Sam Houston Drive, which abuts one of the new steel poles.

She worries about a potential lawsuit if a pedestrian gets injured on her property while dodging it.

People living in surrounding apartments or those who are without vehicles use the sidewalk to make trips to the post office or convenience store across the street from the preschool, she said.

"It's right in the middle of the sidewalk," Ocker said. "What about someone who is walking or in a wheelchair? What about a mom pushing her kids in a stroller?"

Billy Blanchard, disabilities and mental health services coordinator for Golden Crescent Workforce Solutions, recommended that anyone who uses that sidewalk and has a disability should file a complaint with the city if he or she is prevented from access to the sidewalks because of the electric upgrade.

AEP Texas spokesman Elgin Janssen said none of the company's construction is arbitrary. "There are too many mitigating factors that need to be considered.

"There is a tremendous amount of coordination between the parties involved in where the poles are located and finally placed," Janssen said. "There's also engineering requirements as to length of span, the stress on the poles and so forth that goes into the design of the line."

The utility pole upgrades will improve reliability in the system and serve future electricity demands, he said.

"There has to be coordination between all parties, not just AEP and the city of Victoria, but AEP and CenterPoint, AEP and AT&T, AEP and the cable company," Janssen said.

Michael Herring, 39, lives on Gardenia Lane near one of the new steel poles.

Although walking is not his main mode of transportation, Herring said he is concerned for people who use the sidewalks to get around.

"If you've got to walk around it, you almost automatically have to step in the street," Herring said. "I could see that as a hazard."

City Engineer Ken Gill said AEP is tasked with repairing the blocked sidewalks, and, weather permitting, will have it fully repaired by mid-February.

The first phase of Sam Houston Drive, which cost $3.4 million, was under construction from November 2001 to October 2004.

AEP Transmission and the city met June 2, 2011, to discuss the utility pole upgrades, he said. At that time, the second phase of Sam Houston Drive, down to Houston Highway, was already under construction.

The second phase, which cost $18.1 million, was completed in November.

"They gave us a set of maps and drawings that they were going to locate near the existing transmission poles that were already in place," Gill said. "Nobody knew about this transmission relocation until 2011."

Overall, Gill said the coordination efforts between the electric company and the city have been good.

"We're working with AEP to accommodate and widen the sidewalks as necessary for the ADA compliance issues and repair sidewalks to their original or better conditions in the areas they (AEP) were working," Gill said.

Despite the planning between public works and the company, elected officials were left out of the loop.

Councilman David Hagan brought the issue up during Wednesday's City Council meeting, saying it posed a serious safety threat to pedestrians.

"I put the prime responsibility on the electric company," Hagan said.

He said AEP's project undermines the city's good efforts to construct handicapped-accessible sidewalks along Sam Houston Drive.

The current condition of the sidewalks east of North Navarro Street is a hazard, Hagan said.

"It was money well spent, that's why it's a little saddening to see some of it (the sidewalk) being torn up and, in the middle of a brand new sidewalk, to see this gigantic obstacle placed in the way," Hagan said. "It's disappointing, but what's done is done, and we have to come up with the best solution we can so we don't wind up in the same situation again."

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