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Tampa Electric's Davis Islands storm hardening project is a sign of what's to come

Tampa Electric Co. will begin a multi-phase process next week to move electrical and gas lines that serve Tampa General Hospital underground, reducing access to the island to one lane temporarily. Pictured is Tampa General Hospital in 2017. [Times (2017)]
Published Jul. 18

A major storm hardening project is expected to cause significant travel interruptions to and from Davis Islands for the next three months.

Tampa Electric Co. will begin a multi-phase project next week to move electrical and gas lines that serve Tampa General Hospital underground, reducing access to the island to one lane temporarily.

It's part of Tampa Electric's effort to make "critical facilities" such as the hospital better able to weather powerful storms. Though it has been in the works for more than a year, more projects like it are expected in the future. Recently-passed state legislation calls for public utilities to move much of their distribution lines, the wires that deliver power to homes and businesses, underground to better protect them from powerful storms.

The Tampa General Hospital project gives some clues to the challenges larger so-called "undergrounding" efforts bring.

According to Regan Haines, Tampa Electric's director of asset management, the Plant Avenue bridge has six circuits beneath it: three supply power to residential areas of Davis Islands, while the other three provide power for the hospital. Two of the hospital's lines are being relocated under the channel; its third, which provides backup power, will remain on the bridge. A gas line on the bridge that serves both the hospital and residents will be moved underground.

"The scenario we're looking at was a significant surge event that washes away the bridge and takes those circuits that are attached to the bridge and washes them out," Haines said.

But at Thursday's City Council meeting, councilman John Dingfelder pressed the utility on how it prioritized efforts, including why it wasn't working to similarly address residential lines to the neighborhood that are located at the same bridge as the lines that will be moved.

"I think protecting the hospital is job one," Dingfelder said. "But jobs two and three should be protecting the residents in the event of a big storm surge, and right now that's not happening."

Residential lines on Davis Islands aren't considered as high of a priority, said Tampa Electric community relations manager Alan Denham, because residents are able to evacuate ahead of a storm. Tampa Electric does not plan to address residential lines.

"The fact about Tampa General Hospital is that if a storm event comes like (Hurricane) Irma, the hospital is not able to evacuate," he said at the meeting.

Storm hardening, Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said, is not related to climate change. This project will cost ratepayers between $5 million and $10 million.

The first and most disruptive phase of the project begins July 25 and will continue through the end of October. Traffic to the islands will be reduced to one lane up to Arbor Place, and a police officer will help direct left turns. All remaining phases, Jacobs said, will be completed by the spring. For more information on the closures, see the city's traffic advisory.

The bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June, encourages utilities to move lines that distribute power locally underground and develop 10-year plans to better protect their infrastructure against storms.The Florida Public Service Commission is in the process of establishing specific requirements and benchmarks for the utilities.

Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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