CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misattributed a quote to Pepco spokesperson Myra Oppel. The quote has been changed.
The approval of a $6.8 billion merger between Pepco and utility giant Exelon is being celebrated by a group of local civic activists you likely wouldn’t expect.
The merger of the utilities as approved May 15 by the state’s Public Service Commission requires Pepco to help plan and pay for a public pedestrian and bicyclist trail under its large transmission lines—a swath of land that runs from Westlake Drive in Bethesda to Dickerson — including the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown.
The trail, part of a merger settlement agreement Montgomery County entered into with Pepco and Exelon, has long been a project of Bethesda resident John Wetmore, a pedestrian advocate and creator of the public access “Perils for Pedestrians” television show.
In the past, Pepco has cited safety and liability concerns as reasons for not putting a public recreational path underneath its large power line stanchions.
But with examples of shared-use paths under transmission lines around the country—including in the existing Exelon portfolio—Wetmore and other trail advocates saw an opportunity.
“The trail will connect a great many things in the heart of Montgomery County,” Wetmore said. “Within a 15-minute walk of the trail you have a dozen schools, numerous local parks and local shopping centers and thousands of homes. Numerous cross streets have existing or planned bike facilities.”
Wetmore said he envisions the transmission line trail providing a way for soccer players to reach the SoccerPlex by bicycle and serving Bethesda residents in the apartment buildings near Westfield Montgomery mall. But he also sees it as the first step in a more complete off-road trail network in Montgomery County.
The county government included the request for a trail in its settlement agreement with Pepco and Exelon after prodding from Wetmore, trail groups and civic activists such as Potomac’s Peggy Dennis.
Dennis, a member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and a host of other citizens groups, helped craft a letter asking for the trail to County Executive Ike Leggett and the president of Exelon, the Chicago-based company purchasing Pepco and two other Pepco Holdings power companies.
“We said, ‘You have these other electrical distribution companies in your portfolio that have shared-use paths,’” Dennis said. “Why not open them up to people on bikes, cross-country skis, [and to] joggers? If it’s paved, even kids with scooters can use them. It’s a no-brainer.”
The settlement agreement with the county requires planning on the paved and natural surface trail to start within four months of the merger closing. The deal still must get approval from the public service commission in Washington, D.C.
Pepco spokesperson Myra Oppel said cost estimates and some other details haven’t been worked out. The path would essentially double as an access road for maintenance vehicles. It would be Pepco's first recreational trail in a transmission line corridor.
"Planning would not begin until after that transaction has been completed," Oppel said.
Pepco must pay for “all reasonable costs associated” with the project, but only “if it is able to obtain such recovery in regulated rates,” according to the settlement agreement.
In other words, the newly formed Exelon and Pepco company will be allowed to recover the costs of the trail through increasing electricity rates, a process that would also have to be approved by the state’s Public Service Commission.
The prospect of future rate increase cases tied to the trail and localized microgrids also required by the settlement with Montgomery County worried two Public Service Commission members who voted against approving the merger. The commission approved the merger by a 3-2 vote.
The dissenting commissioners wrote that the settlement “essentially sanctioned massive budgets without appropriate review.”
In her response about Pepco’s plans for the pilot, Oppel didn’t address a question about potential future rate increases.