Infrastructure issues simply are not optional

Addressing them is essential for our economy


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We do some real estate work for a handful of utilities. This often involves adjusting existing easements and rights-of-way. Sometimes the easement granted in 1920 gave only the right to place one set of poles and wires, and now the utility wants to add another set to provide backup and redundancy to help ensure more reliability.

If there are existing lines in place, adding an additional line has only an incremental impact. Where it gets dicey is when the right-of-way exists but there are no poles or wires (perhaps they were removed but the underlying easement rights were kept) and now the utility wants to put poles and wires back. They can only do this if their easement rights are clear and validated.

We are working on one area where a subdivision was built with several houses right up against the “paper” right-of-way. The right-of-way was fully documented, but because one could not “see” anything, perhaps the buyers thought there would never be any poles and wires.

When the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission pressed the electric utilities to improve reliability and reduce restoration time after winter storms, that sometimes means adding legs to the distribution grid to be able to feed power to an area from more than one source or direction.

Like anything else, for every benefit there is a cost. Sometimes the utility feels they are between a rock and a hard place with the PUC pushing them on one side and property owners pushing back on the other.

For electric utilities, the uproar over the Northern Pass project, originally bringing hydroelectric power from Quebec through New Hampshire to western Massachusetts and Connecticut, has caused a great deal of consumer reaction and pushback.

Much of the stress results from the public's lack of full understanding about the sources and uses of electrical power in the Northeast.

Global warming and climate change caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, much of which comes from coal and oil-fired electrical plants, has prompted legislation and regulations at both the federal and state levels mandating changes.

Here in the Northeast, this resulted in the decommissioning of coal-fired plants and then conversion of oil-fired plants to natural gas. Alas, the national pipeline system is constrained on how much gas it can pump to the Northeast. This is a constraint when residential and commercial heating customers get priority. So when it is really cold, the power plants can't get sufficient gas as it is diverted to residential and commercial users.

The current situation is that we are running up against our aging infrastructures – this applies to the electrical grid, pipelines, roads, bridges and water supplies. All of these are coming due, and few individuals or politicians are willing to acknowledge the imminent need and the huge costs.

Grasp the issues

There are some that argue that the heated (super-heated?) debate over health care is dominating the political stage. With U.S. health care at 20 percent of GDP, it does beg the question of how much is left over to deal with energy and infrastructure issues.

Dr. James Fieseher, a primary care physician in Dover, wrote a “My Turn” piece for the Dec. 13 Concord Monitor. It is a very thoughtful piece with emphasis on the current medical sector where the focus has been, and continues to be, on treating diseases and conditions rather than curing them or preventing them in the first place.

He cites several examples, diabetes chief among them. Doctors are not trained to proactively diagnose pre-diabetes and intervene sufficiently to preclude the full onset. Fieseher argues that will not significantly make a dent in health care costs until we redirect the national focus to wellness and prevention. He is right on the mark.

So, on a national level we seem to have lost our ability to grasp the issues, whether problems/challenges or opportunities, and formulate cohesive policies to deal with them. The built environment is not only important for our quality of life, it is essential to support our economy. Many of these infrastructure issues simply are not optional.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE) and a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS). He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

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