The first segment of a controversial high-voltage power line between La Crosse and Madison is in service, even as the courts consider legal challenges to the project.

Earlier this week, American Transmission Co. announced it had electrified a 20-mile stretch of the 345-kilovolt line known as Badger Coulee between Middleton and the town of Vienna in Dane County. And work continues along the Interstate 90/94 corridor, and crews began clearing right-of-way Thursday in Trempealeau County between Taylor and Blair.

Construction has yet to begin in La Crosse County, where the project faces a challenge by the town of Holland that is now before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

A joint venture of ATC and utilities including La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, the 180-mile line will run between the Madison suburbs and a substation in Holmen, where it will connect to another high-voltage line, CapX2020, which brings power from Minnesota.

The owners say the lines will lower electricity costs, improve the reliability and efficiency of the electric grid, and bring low-cost wind energy into Wisconsin. Opponents contend it was unnecessary and will discourage cheaper alternatives like conservation and local renewable energy investments.

Either way, the costs will be shared by electricity customers in 15 Midwestern states and one Canadian province. The cost to Wisconsin consumers is estimated at about $5 million.

The town of Holland asked a court to review the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s approval of the $580 million project as well as its decision to route the line along the Hwy. 53 corridor on separate poles across the highway from another high-voltage line. Judge Todd Bjerke denied the town’s primary claim but found the PSC’s siting decision lacked “any rational basis” and ordered the commission to reconsider requests to string the line on the same poles as CapX.

The town appealed, arguing the PSC’s determination of necessity — the basic requirement for allowing a project to be constructed at ratepayer expense — was based on an incorrect interpretation of state law.

The PSC filed its own appeal, seeking to overturn Bjerke’s order that the commission reconsider the routing, calling it “wholly unsupported.”

Bjerke initially ordered work stopped on the La Crosse County portion of the line but later lifted the injunction after ATC argued that a delay would cost ratepayers an additional $2.5 million.

ATC has yet to begin construction in La Crosse or Trempealeau counties, but company spokeswoman Kaya Freiman said the project remains on schedule to be in service by the end of 2018, which means much — if not all — will be built before the Court of Appeals issues a ruling.

Jablonski worries that completion of the line could effectively nullify a victory by the town, though Bjerke said if the town prevails the burden will be on ATC to remove the line.

“They didn’t have to put a shovel in the ground until a year after the last appeal was dead,” Jablonski said. “They’re the ones who decided to do it this way.”

The owners say the lines will lower electricity costs, improve the reliability and efficiency of the electric grid, and bring low-cost wind energy into Wisconsin. Opponents contend it was unnecessary and will discourage cheaper alternatives like conservation and local renewable energy investments.
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Reporter

Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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