Sunday, August 24, 2003


Utility lines can be buried along highway medians, kept dry by modular dividers that seal in the access tunnel.

Out of sight,
out of our hair

There must be a way
to put poles and wires
where we can't see them

Last month we asked about those utility lines that shroud our public highways, marring Hawaii's scenic landscape with a web of poles, cables and wires. Is there a way, either practical or legal, to make them go away? After all, the Outdoor Circle successfully banned outdoor advertising in Hawaii, but the landscape remains littered with these totems to modern consumption.

For example, Kalanianaole Highway near Kailua is one of the most scenic drives on Oahu, but it has utility lines draped along both sides of the road. The ironic thing is that the highway department dug a trench along the median to bury the power supply for new streetlights.

The consensus from readers is that whenever possible, utility lines in public spaces should be buried. If that's not possible, then utility companies should be required to work together to reduce the number of poles needed. The Star-Bulletin's think tank came up with the design shown in the illustration at left -- a concrete utility passageway along the highway median, capped with interlocking modular barriers that plug tightly into the passageway like champagne corks and can be lifted out for maintenance.

How big would this project be? The first response, not surprisingly, came from a utility company, and contained useful data:

"We are looking forward to the results of your latest brainstorm," wrote Peter Rosegg, senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric. "Did you know that Hawaii utilities on Oahu -- electric, phone and state- or city-owned street lights -- jointly own about 55,000 poles? HECO owns about 3,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines.

"What most people do not know is that 44 percent of transmission and distribution lines are underground right now.

"Which is more reliable -- overhead or underground lines? Overhead lines are more vulnerable to weather conditions, of course, and to objects contacting the lines. Utility poles are subject to termite damage, vehicle accidents and sometimes to fire. Underground lines are more vulnerable to water penetration, termites and other vermin and construction dig-ins.

"Generally, overhead lines require more frequent repair, but underground line problems are harder to detect, take longer and are more expensive to repair. In short, it depends!"

Right on the heels of HECO's note came one from Verizon:

"(I) wanted to provide you with some information to help balance your piece," said Ann Nishida, media-relations manager for Verizon Hawaii. "We at Verizon -- like HECO and Oceanic, local utility companies that we share facilities (poles) with -- have done and continue to do a lot of undergrounding, including all new subdivisions and whenever and wherever we can do it at a cost consumers will find reasonable.

"Customers can opt for underground facilities in their areas by working with their neighbors and utility companies and if all parties are in agreement, Verizon will consider cost-sharing on a case-by-case basis."

All of the above is why we limited the question to public highways.

No one argued to preserve utility lines, except, sort of, this correspondent:

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. ... The first time my preschooler's car seat was moved to a window view, he exclaimed with delight and fascination, 'Oh, look! Cobweb sticks!' as we passed heavy power poles and lines. (Because he was) too short to see the buses below the poles, the rhythm, pattern and movement were mesmerizing." (Gwen Biggert, Volcano)

Some responses came from far afield and gave insight into this issue elsewhere:

"Most of our cables, electrical and phone lines are underground. This makes neighborhoods and streets less obstructive and provides a much better view." (Jennifer Barr, Columbia, S.C.)

"Do like the rest of the country ... go underground! Too much rock, you say? If homeowners and small-business owners can be evicted and their property be replaced by a 30-foot underground commercial garage, then wouldn't you think a 5-foot hole can be dug to bury poles and lines?" (Monica Lewis, Honolulu)

"A solution to overhead utility wires has been implemented in the Peak District of central England -- a 555-square mile area designated as a British National Park since 1951, where 38,000 residents live in quaint stone villages and towns, yet which also contains industry, commerce and farming. The chief industry is tourism. The planners here try to preserve the landscape by encouraging utility companies to bury their telephone and electricity lines underground." (Philip and Cynthia Read, England)

"Underground wires do not require new technology. It's not a brainstorm ... it's a no-brainer! While working in Jakarta, Indonesia, I witnessed the retrofitting of pole power and telecommunication wires to underground systems. This in a country often referred to as 'underdeveloped.' Kahaluu to Haleiwa could be one of the most beautiful drives along the Pacific Ocean were it not for the jumble of poles, wires and guide wires, which render it a true eyesore -- let alone a maintenance nightmare.

"But legislation won't work unless we elect legislators who have a financial interest in converting to underground wiring." (Paul Grandmain, Hauula)

Some assumed that the utility companies would only go underground if forced to by law or technological advances:

"It would be unrealistic to have underground lines in short order, mainly due to funds and property easements. It's a worthy cause to wage a war against this unsightly visual pollution. At the very least, new developments like Ko Olina are going in the right direction. State and city and HECO could at least plan to do increments along the scenic coast of Oahu. It's going to take decades but we may as well begin today." (Choon James, Laie)

"I expect it will require a bit of both legislation and technology. The technology is advancing and looks promising. I am referring to wave-generated electricity. The advantages of this system seem especially relevant to Hawaii and seem likely to be implemented in the future. The wave-generation system generates power from strategic locations at sea and transmits it to land via undersea cables. During the course of the transition from fossil fuels to wave energy, much of the overhead power distribution could and should be replaced with underground distribution." (Don Head)

One person brought up the intriguing idea of using public-safety money to pay for it:

"In some places poles are placed in the middle of the unimproved sidewalk, blocking pedestrian views of oncoming motor vehicles. When a pole falls, power, cable and phone lines are out for not only immediate areas but a much larger service area. If another Hurricane Iniki-like situation were to occur, and all the poles came down, it would take months to replace them. Let's get rid of them now -- it's a public-safety issue. The federal government recently released more funds for disaster-mitigation plans. In those plans it is recognized that poles falling down during a natural disaster is something to be dealt with before the disaster occurs, thereby mitigating the disaster's damage to our infrastructure." (Lila Marantz, Kahaluu)

There also were the "everything can be engineered" viewpoints:

"Maybe having a single, stiff, trunked conduit bridging from pole to pole -- instead of the array of wires hanging and sagging at varied heights on the poles -- would reduce the clutter up there. The result is much more pleasing to the eyes and keeps things in order. From the conduit bridgeway you could attach low-voltage rope lighting powered by solar cells or just have them powered by inductive means from the high voltage lines encased within." (Craig Watanabe, Honolulu)

"It seems to me that the discussion has always revolved around underground vs. poled utility lines; underground is too expensive and poles are an eyesore. An above-ground pipe just a few inches above ground level would have the advantage of not being too costly and yet not be visible at a distance, much like pipelines in oil-producing states. Where it needs to branch to the communities it serves, it could then go underground into the neighborhood. I would think that structural engineers could come up with a safe design." (Don Miller, Hickam)

"What is wrong with replacing street lights with low curb lights? State highways are not normally open to pedestrians. Some can even have a solar backup. Hawaii has much more sun than most places -- we should capitalize on this. An example is the airport on- and off-ramps with fluorescent fixtures. With all the advanced technology we have, it is overdue." (Alvin Wong, Pearl City)

And some even suggested behavior-modification solutions:

"Since speed bumps have a negative effect on those nervous hearing disorders, why not lay down the utility poles and lines on designated streets or highways to slow down speeders? If they accidentally hit a power line while driving over the pole and get zapped, then you know they were speeding ... tsk tsk!" (Monica Lewis, Honolulu)

"Bury 'em by building more 'heiau' like the one at the front of the Hawaii Baptist Academy on the Pali Highway." (Blaine Fergerstrom, Foster Village)


Next month's Brainstorm!


You thought the Dust Bowl was in Oklahoma? You haven't been inside Diamond Head. An isolated, parched, largely windless desert perched like an enormous terrarium on the Waikiki shore, the interior of Diamond Head is so inhospitable even the ancient Hawaiians ignored it. One plan even suggested that the interior be filled with water as a reservoir, as we've illustrated here.

Put your thinking caps on and fire up those brain cells: What can be done with Diamond Head? The wilder the suggestion, the better. Use modern technology, ancient traditions, entertainment and cultural needs, agricultural imperatives ... hey, what about a rock 'n' roll festival! What? It's been done?

What should be done
with Diamond Head
in this new millennium?

Send suggestions to


E-mail to Editorial Editor


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