New Orleans Hospital Projects Marred By Transmission Lines

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Nov. 12, 2012 edition.

A plan several years ago to bury transmission and other power lines at the University Medical Center and Veterans Affairs hospital in BioDistrict New Orleans, where both complexes are under construction now, was termed too costly. Instead, transmission lines were built early this year on above-ground columns that are so obtrusive they might hurt other city development objectives, critics say. Hopes that the two new hospitals would share power generation were also dashed a while ago.

The 1,500-acre BioDistrict spans much of Mid-City and downtown New Orleans. Lower Mid-City is barely recognizable now after homes were torn down or relocated in recent years to make way for the new hospitals.

James McNamara, president of BioDistrict New Orleans, said last week that burying transmission lines for the two hospitals could have cost $19 million, according to a figure he heard from the Louisiana Division of Administration's Facility Planning and Control unit. That compares with estimates of between $5 million to $8 million to keep the lines above ground, he said. The transmission towers that were built this year connect high-voltage lines from their power source to other parts of the community, he noted. McNamara said it's his understanding that the state paid for the new transmission lines for the UMC.

"Internal lines will be buried on the UMC campus, however," McNamara said. But "because of federal security issues, it's unlikely that the VA hospital will disclose its internal power distribution."

Last week, Amanda Jones, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System spokeswoman, said no decision has been made about whether lines will be buried at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Community organizer Janet Hays said that she heard estimates of well below $19 million for burying the new hospitals' transmission and power lines from Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant's office and at UMC board meetings. Cost estimates that have circulated for below-ground lines for the two hospitals are less than half that amount, she said. Hays has attended all UMC board meetings, except one, in the last couple of years.

Last week, City Hall said questions about BioDistrict power lines should be directed to the state, presumably because the district is a state agency.

Hays said after houses were torn down or moved in Lower Mid-City in recent years, the state needed to move a 230-kilovolt transmission line from the heart of the UMC footprint. Since those lines could interfere with electronic medical technology, the hospital's perimeters were chosen as the right site, she said.

Michael DiResto, spokesman for the Louisiana Division of Administration, said last week "we've been working strictly on the issue of power supply for the University Medical Center," rather than for the entire BioDistrict. "Entergy has provided temporary construction power as requested, and has committed to provide the UMC's permanent power sources," he said. "Permanent power lines serving the UMC will be underground on the UMC site." He declined to explain who paid for transmission lines that were built above ground earlier this year.

McNamara said piles have been driven at Tulane and Claiborne for a UMC power facility and at Galvez and Tulane for a VA power unit. Those two, separate power facilities are being built now.

The construction price tag for the entire UMC complex, which will be run by LSU Health, is $1.2 billion, and it's about $1 billion for the VAMC.

Sandra Stokes, board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, said last week "in the scheme of $2 billion to build the two hospitals, spending some additional dollars to bury power lines seems a small price to avoid unsightly transmission lines in the city's center and to have stable power during storms."

Stokes is also concerned about the hospitals' decisions not to share power generation and other facilities. "We were told all along that the state had to seize and demolish the densely populated, Lower Mid-City neighborhood between Galvez and Rocheblave--which was rebuilding after Katrina--because that site was needed for the much-hyped synergy and shared services between the VAMC and the UMC," she said.

She said "LSU and state officials testified about synergies the hospitals would have on Jan. 22, 2009, before the state legislature's Appropriations Committee in Baton Rouge. But on the same day and time at a National Historic Preservation Act section 106 meeting in New Orleans, the VA displayed its designs and said each hospital would construct its own parking and physical plants separately."

DiResto said last week that the two hospitals won't share power facilities. "But they will share some clinical programs, as well as diagnostic and treatment systems," he said.

Plans to bury the transmission lines evaporated, Stokes said. "At meetings during the Section 106 process, it was always discussed that these hospital complexes would be built to be the best, and that the transmission lines would be buried." But that didn't happen. "Now, horrendous transmission lines partially encircle the UMC campus for blocks on three sides." But she said "you don't see these lines on any drawings or models of the new UMC complex."

Stokes wrote a letter to William Gilchrist, City Hall's place-based planning director, in February saying "with these power lines under construction, concerned citizens are able to see how prohibitive and intrusive they will be. Their size and scale are shocking, even before the lines are attached to the oversized columns." The columns mar the landscape and will be particularly evident if the Claiborne highway is torn down, she said in her letter. Stokes asked the city to reconsider burying the lines.

The city is mulling the idea of tearing down Claiborne highway and replacing it with a boulevard similar to one there previously.

Last week, Stokes said the ugly transmission lines aren't consistent with the image of a 21st century, state-of-the-art BioDistrict, nor are they a welcoming gateway to the central business district.

And Stokes said above-ground lines are particularly vulnerable. "After Hurricane Isaac struck in late August, the new LSU hospital construction site lost power for a week," she said. Areas with power during and after Isaac were those with buried power lines, including the Central Business District, much of the Warehouse District and the French Quarter.

"Entergy may be concerned about burying lines throughout the city because it would be costly to do the excavation," Stokes said. "But the city's Sewerage and Water Board is digging up lines for its own planned improvements now," she noted. "Entergy could conceivably save money by coordinating with S&WB by burying power lines while ground is being dug up, and in that way could eventually bury lines across the city."

At Entergy New Orleans, spokesman Philip Allison said last week "we are still working with the new hospitals to determine the best way to serve their needs. We hope to know more in the coming weeks and months."

Allison continued "since final decisions haven't been made at this point, it's difficult to answer technical questions. And we also don't have any information on costs or how they will be handled at this point."

To what extent will renewable energy be used at the new hospitals? "Entergy New Orleans has a history of using alternative-energy sources like thermal," McNamara said. "But from the data we've reviewed, we believe solar is very difficult on the district scale because of the amount of surface area required to generate sufficient power. New Orleans just doesn't have enough open land for a solar panel field." When asked about roofs, he said "I had no role in the decision on whether or not to use the roof" of the UMC for solar panels.

Sometimes things were done better in earlier decades, and the older, downtown hospitals have managed to share a thermal plant for awhile. McNamara said "a plant for creating steam to power electrical generators was constructed at Claiborne and Gravier years ago to service the old medical complex."

Brad Ott, director of Advocates for Louisiana Public Healthcare, said of the thermal plant "it's my understanding that a facility on the corner of Gravier and South Claiborne powers the LSU Health Sciences Center, the Charity School of Nursing, the Interim LSU Hospital and Charity, and part of it is a parking structure. It provides chilled air and electricity throughout the complex, partly via an elevated walkway running from the Gravier location to LSU-HSC and LSU Interim." McNamara said the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium and the Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel also participate in that power sharing.

The new UMC should be finished in fourth-quarter 2014 and the VA facility is to be complete in first-quarter 2015.

Hays said "if they had retrofitted Charity Hospital, there would have been no need to pay for moving power lines. Lines were replaced at Charity after Katrina, and they were fully operational and broadband ready." Architects viewed Charity as structurally sound after the 2005 hurricane but the state decided not to reopen the hospital and is building the UMC instead. end