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New, taller electricity poles and lines are up, altering the landscape in the California area, as the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative aims to complete this year a loop offering stronger and more reliable power.

A helicopter made a final flight Wednesday to pull lead lines through the new power poles in St. Mary’s at Route 4 near the Patuxent River.

The more powerful electrical lines should be energized in December, said Tom Dennison, public affairs manager for SMECO.

The Southern Maryland Reliability Project runs 30 miles from Huntingtown in Calvert County to Buck Hewitt Road in St. Mary’s, with 28 miles of new overhead 230 kilovolt lines. There are 24 miles in Calvert County, four miles in St. Mary’s County and 2 miles of underground line beneath the Patuxent River.

Last fall, a SMECO contractor drilled two 4,500-foot-long tunnels 50 feet below the bed of the Patuxent River to house the underground lines.

All this work was done to provide a more powerful, continuous loop of electricity between Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.

“There’s a lot of ‘lasts’ going on” for the project now, Dennison said, such as the last pole being put up, last helicopter flight and last pole getting lined.

SMECO started preparing for the reliability project in 2006, announced the project in April 2008, got state approval in 2009 and started construction in Lusby in spring 2012, working northward through Calvert County. “It’s been a great journey and something we’re extremely proud of,” Dennison said.

“We’re on time. We’re under budget. We’re providing reliable service,” he said. The projected cost was $110 million, but came in at $108 million.

Along the 30 miles of the project, there are 291 new power poles at 280 sites (some sites have two poles). In St. Mary’s, they start at Route 4 at South Patuxent Beach Road, follow the SMECO right of way along Route 4, run through the woods along Shady Mile Drive, come out at the Park Place development, go across Route 235 to the South Plaza shopping center, south through the Laurel Glen shopping center, past Walmart, across Chancellor’s Run Road, past the San Souci neighborhood and end at the switching station at Buck Hewitt Road.

The new poles range in height from 125 feet to 160 feet, depending on the topography. The average height is 140 feet, Dennison said.

“I think they’re just an abomination,” Bill Moody, a Lexington Park resident, said. For years, St. Mary’s County government has tried to revitalize the Lexington Park area, and “after you pass Route 4,” going southbound on Route 235 “are those huge poles. It boggles my mind how those got approved,” he said.

“This right of way has been in place for decades,” Dennison said.

“The towers may be a little unsightly,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). “Beats wind turbines,” he joked, referring to the recent conflict between radar testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and a proposed wind turbine project across the Chesapeake Bay in Somerset County.

The SMECO power poles are made of galvanized steel, which was chosen as “they blend in with the sky better,” Dennison said. While the poles are shiny now, they will lose their sheen over time, he said.

The poles had to be larger and higher to hold more and larger lines, according to national code, he said. The poles hold a double-circuit, 230-kilovolt line, as well as the old 69-kilovolt line, and have room for another 69-kilovolt line. “We couldn’t go above 160 feet tall,” Dennison said, according to the permit.

The new poles were built to withstand winds of 100 mph and be able to hold up under 1½ inches of ice, Dennison said. Each pole is also grounded against lightning strikes.

While the poles are taller, there are fewer of them than the old 69-kilovolt poles. There were 430 of the older poles along the 30 miles. Moody said some wondered why the new lines weren’t buried. “I hope they at least considered it,” he said.

When there are above-ground utilities, it’s preferred to replace them with above-ground facilities, Dennison said. It is 10 to 15 times more expensive to bury power lines and more expensive to maintain them. He said it’s also more environmentally disturbing to have to dig through swamps, creeks and hills.

SMECO did have to bury the lines along North Patuxent Beach Road in California because there wasn’t enough room along the road for the poles, and across the river at the Naval Recreation Center at Solomons, where there was no right of way.

Now contractors will finish installing conductors on the new poles on the St. Mary’s side, then install the cables and conductors inside the conduits already installed under the Patuxent River.

In December the plan is to flip the power breakers at the substation at Buck Hewitt Road and the new station at Sollers Wharf to open up the loop. Post-construction restoration work is now underway along the right of way in St. Mary’s. It’s already finished in Calvert, Dennison said. Vegetation will be planted in the fall.

jbabcock@somdnews.com