If you’ve traveled Interstate 240 near downtown Asheville lately, you may have noticed something new towering in the sky. No, it’s not a new high-rise hotel (this time); Duke Energy has been in the process of replacing 22 utility poles in the area. The new poles run from the River Arts District to West Haywood Street through the West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhood, which is also known as WECAN. From there, the poles cross I-240 and run up Hill Street to Cherry Street before connecting to the substation on Rankin Avenue behind the U.S. Cellular Center.
The new steel poles soar to about 100 feet, which is 20-30 feet taller than the previous poles. “I’ve been watching [the poles] go up and I noticed they were taller,” says Michael McDonough, a local architect who’s also president of the Montford Neighborhood Association. “But I notice things like that. In terms of aesthetics, I kind of like the rusted steel look.”
According to Jason Walls, local government and community relations manager with Duke Energy, the rusted look of the poles is meant to help them blend into their surroundings; their size accommodates larger wires to carry more electricity and allows distribution lines to run underneath the transmission lines.
The $16 million effort to replace the poles began in the middle of last year, but the final pole was erected on June 19, says Walls. The project will be completed in September. By then, all of the new lines will be in place and the remainder of the old poles will have been removed and repurposed or recycled.
“Asheville is growing, and in order to support reliable electricity for customers we need to rebuild the transmission line,” Walls says. Previously, Duke partnered with the city of Asheville to rebuild the system around the River Arts District. Some additional substation work and grid-related improvements will also take place, Walls says.
For the most part, the new poles stand in the same general alignment as the poles they replaced, though not in the exact same spot. “We couldn’t put them back in the same holes, because the line has to continue to serve the city while we are doing construction,” explains Walls. “But the new transmission poles are within a few feet of the current pole location.”
In one instance, however, the poles were relocated. Distribution and transmission lines that ran down the middle of the sidewalk on Hill Street, past the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and on toward Isaac Dickson Elementary School, were removed from the sidewalk closest to the school and placed on the other side of Hill Street adjacent to I-240. “That school has a lot of families that walk to school and ride their bikes,” says Walls. The relocation of the poles will allow more room on the sidewalk for foot traffic.
“We are very excited about the movement of the power poles,” says Brad Johnson, Isaac Dickson’s principal. “This will create a safer route for our students, staff, visitors and volunteers. In the past, the utility poles were centered in the sidewalks, forcing families into the street on their way to and from school. The new placement is safer for everyone.”
Those traveling in the area of the replacement poles may find some one-lane road closures, but Walls maintains, “We are only closing roads when we absolutely have to in order to safely do the work.”
In some areas, such as at Roberts Street and Trade Street in the WECAN neighborhood, trees have been removed for the project.
“We had to clear a lot of trees coming up from the corner of Roberts Street and Clingman [Avenue],” says Walls. In heavily impacted areas, Duke went door to door and attended neighborhood meetings to talk with neighbors about the tree removal. They’ll also be planting additional trees to reduce the impact of the cutting, according to Walls.
Replacing the power poles is just one aspect of upgrades to the electrical grid that serves downtown Asheville. In the future, Duke plans to build a new substation at the corner of Clingman and Patton avenues on the former site of the Hunter Volvo dealership. “We have identified the need for more substations,” says Walls. Duke is currently working with the community to discuss the design of the substation.
“I understand the need for [the new poles],” says McDonough. “I guess shorter poles that went through someone else’s neighborhood would be better, but the route has always been there — they’re just beefing it up.”