Bury the cables, America!

Now that the election is blissfully behind us, maybe it's safe to make grand political pronouncements without seeming to be partisan, such as: We Americans used to build big. From the Erie Canal to the transcontinental railroad, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Hoover Dam, from the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, we love to build big things.

But what have we done on this monumental scale lately? Many point with pride to our public project penury as saving future generations a hefty bill. But it seems we also are robbing the future of not only monuments to our collective derring-do, but of necessary infrastructure advancements so the world we leave behind doesn't one day simply crumble from our niggling neglect.

In this spirit, I have a suggestion for a grand public project — not a visible monument to our achievements, but an invisible one. A grand project that would make us all safer and secure, and rid our landscape of possibly the ugliest intrusion on our scenery: Cables.

Thomas Edison was a genius. Oh, I know, what a spectacularly bland pronouncement, especially in the face of recent revisionist re-examinations of the plodding 99-percent perspiration-focused Wizard of Menlo Park and the rising reputation of Edison's former employee and more efficiently scientific-centered Nikola Tesla.

This conflict between Edison and Tesla was encapsulated brilliantly in the "Changing the Game" episode on the History Channel mini-series "The Men Who Built America."

What's somewhat lost in the Edison v. Tesla re-assessments is Edison's early insistence to bury the power cables when building the world's first electrical power station at Pearl Street in New York in 1882.

According to the monumental technical Edison biography by Matthew Josephson, Edison replied to requests to hang his electrical cables on poles by snorting "You don't lift water pipes and gas pipes on stilts."

Despite protests from dummies that burying cables was not only more expensive but would mean electricity would "leak" into the earth, politicians decided to take the cheap way out and strung electrical cables on poles, defying Edison's still-sound logic.

A Forest of Polls

In no time, there was a web of wires — telephone, telegraph and electrical — millions of cat's cradles strung over the streets on Manhattan on what was contemporaneously described as a forest of poles.

New York paid the price for its municipal impecuniosity just six years later. The Blizzard of 1888, the Hurricane Sandy of its time, decimated this ill-conceived high-wire act and prompted the city fathers to do what they should have done in the first place — bury the cables.

Look around Manhattan more than a century later. What you don't see are overhead cables.

Manhattan south of 40th Street lost power during Hurricane Sandy and the nor'easter that followed because of a blown transformer. Everywhere else in this Sandy-smacked area, power remained out largely because of downed power lines awaiting repair. It's been slow to come back, and in some places it still hasn't.

Electricity is the thin line that separates modern civilization from its slow, dark and unsanitary past. No power means no light, no communications, no heat, no flushing, no transportation, no water, no food, no money. Electricity is literally our most important life-line, and defines our entire existence.

And what's the advanced technology we need to deploy to prevent this kind of emasculating depravation?

A shovel.

Billions and Billions

Okay, that's an over simplification. We need not only ditch-digging machines, but money. Burying our electrical and telephone cables would be monumental and monumentally expensive.

But the cost of burying the cables may be more expensive than the cost of not burying them.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum makes a compelling economic argument in his CNN column, arguing that burying electrical cables would cost far less than the $1 million per mile costs some estimate.

We taxpayers may not have to incur the entire cable interment costs, too. Utilities all have reciprocal repair agreements with neighboring locales, meaning fleets of trucks have to be maintained and deployed during emergencies at great cost to the utilities and, ultimately, to us. It costs local electric companies millions to repair downed power lines.

The beauty of burying electrical cables is it not only solves an obvious problem, but it creates jobs, creates a more stable infrastructure for us, our children and grandchildren, it creates more beautiful and serene scenery, and it creates a unified project all Americans approve of and can be proud of accomplishing.

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