Traverse City News and Events

TC Light & Power Transmission Line Project Will Require Extensive Tree Removal

By Beth Milligan | May 11, 2022

A major Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) transmission line project between Barlow Street and Airport Access Road will require the removal of 238 trees along Parsons Road near Oakwood Cemetery. Utility staff updated TCLP board members Tuesday on the project, which calls for rebuilding 2.71 miles of an electric transmission line that serves approximately half of TCLP’s customer base. Staff said they worked closely with contractors to avoid tree removal wherever possible and will plant lower-height arborvitae and bushes as replacements, but must remove the trees for the project to move forward and TCLP to meet federal clearance requirements near the airport.

TCLP is replacing the 69kV transmission line that runs from the Barlow Street substation to Airport Access Road. According to staff documents, approximately half of the utility’s 13,000 customers are serviced by the transmission line, and a substation fed by the line is the main backup feed for all of downtown. The distribution circuit is also the main backup feed for the airport industrial park and the air traffic control tower. According to staff documents, the transmission project will shorten the line – decreasing line loss and improving reliability – and underground a section of line in front of airport property, bringing TCLP into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance requirements. The rebuild will “increase capacity” of the 69kV system and allow TCLP to serve as a backup feed for ITC-owned transmission lines in the area, according to staff.

Last December, TCLP hired tree contractor Asplundh Tree Expert Co. to complete a tree and vegetation clearing project in preparation for the transmission line upgrade. The company helped create wide ground clearance ranging from 20-100 feet around the line route along the railroad corridor from Barlow to Airport Access, as well as a broad aerial buffer. Without the maintenance, TCLP said there were public safety risks including downed high voltage lines, sparks from trees contacting energized lines, and stray voltages. In areas that were cleared, TCLP has planned for a restoration component to include planting native shrubs such as highbush cranberry, blackhaw viburnum, and common lilac.

The rebuild plans call for the transmission line to remain roughly in the same location, except for an overhead section that currently detours north at Steele Street and runs along Eighth Street before coming back south to the Parsons/Airport Access intersection. Those overhead lines will be removed and replaced with an underground duct bank that will run directly straight along Parsons. In preparation for construction work, contractor Newkirk performed a preliminary investigation this spring along the north side of Parsons Road where the new underground route will be installed. The contractor dug up buried water and AT&T power lines to verify that the depth data TCLP received about those lines was accurate. “Upon completing this work, they found the data AT&T provided was incorrect, and they were in fact much shallower,” according to staff documents. Now, to install the new duct bank, it will have to be built on the north side of those other utilities closer to the cemetery.

“This means that many trees, mainly Scotch pines, that were originally remaining will now have to be removed,” according to the report, with staff clarifying Tuesday that 203 of the 238 trees to be removed are Scotch pines. “Staff worked with the construction contractor to ensure they weren't just asking to cut the trees to make the underground portion easier to construct. In fact, TCLP incurred additional cost by ensuring that the contractors would be responsible for slight variations on the route, and staff pushed contractors to plan to install the line as far away from the existing trees as possible so as not to affect them. Unfortunately, given the site conditions this wasn't possible, but staff worked with the contractor to ensure that the least amount of trees were affected by crossing AT&T once the water line turned away and left ample room for construction of the line. This means the trees on the far western side of the route do not have to be cut down.”

TCLP will replace the removed trees with “shorter-growing arborvitae and native bushes,” according to the report. “This will ensure that the trees will not grow to a height that will cause them to be cut down for the runway, and add some color during the spring and summer to the corridor.” Examples of replacement vegetation include nannyberry, highbush cranberry, common ninebark, witch hazel, serviceberry, and eastern redbud, many of which are flowering bushes and shrubs that attract birds and pollinators, staff said.

According to TCLP, creating the underground duct bank and removing trees along Parsons is a necessary tradeoff for protecting trees elsewhere. The only alternative to meet FAA clearance requirements besides undergrounding the line along Parsons would be to relocate the transmission line from Steele Street to Hastings Street, “which would have resulted in 2000 feet of conflict with large, mature trees along a residential neighborhood on Hastings and Eighth Street,” staff wrote. By removing 7,000 feet of overhead lines from Steele Street and a tree-filled backlot from Eighth down to Parsons/Airport Access, only distribution lines will remain behind, which require less tree clearance. “This will allow these large trees (where overhead lines are being removed) to properly grow and remain healthy for years to come,” staff wrote. “This also improves reliability and supports our environmental goals.”

After updating TCLP board members Tuesday, utility staff will appear before city commissioners next Monday to also brief them on the project. TCLP also plans to put out a public PSA to ensure residents are prepared for the tree removal project. TCLP Board Chair Paul Heiberger acknowledged the tree clearing will have a significant visual impact in the short term, but reiterated the long-term importance of the project and the utility’s plan to beautify the area with new plantings. “It’ll look pretty awesome in a couple years,” he said. According to TCLP Operations Manager Daren Dixon, tree removal will likely occur in late May or early June, with construction lasting through the end of October. The duct along Parsons will be done first before the overhead line removal, with a lane shift temporarily required on Parsons during the work.

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