After approval, Mark Twain line construction could begin next year

Commissioner Mark Thompson speaks at a public hearing Tuesday night in Kirksville (Louis Finley/KTVO)

The long day’s journey into night ended just after 10 p.m. Tuesday, with a new day dawning for the Mark Twain Transmission Project.

Turning back three years of opposing momentum, the Adair County Commission voted 2 to 1 Tuesday in favor of allowing the long-debated transmission line to cross Adair County. The deciding vote went to Commissioner Stanley Pickens, who joined William King in voting to give assent. Commissioner Mark Thompson, who has vociferously opposed the project since it was proposed, was the lone vote against.

Thompson said Wednesday that legal counsel had advised the commission not to comment on the decision.

The vote took place after a lengthy hearing on Tuesday evening in the William Matthew Middle School auditorium that at times resembled the raucous gatherings of last summer: featuring a vocal crowd full of farmers and other landowners who took turns speaking in opposition to the project.

But it was the voices of economic leaders like Carolyn Chrisman of K-REDI and the Kirksville City Council that won the day.

K-REDI and the city had already sent a letter in support of the line to the commission, citing the economic benefits, and spoke in support of the project at the hearing. First on the list is a wind farm project in Schuyler County that was contingent upon the Mark Twain line passing.

The key to resurrecting the project was, of course, doing what opposition group Neighbors United had asked for from the beginning: using existing easements. A partnership with Northeast Missouri Power Cooperative allowed that to happen.

“We went out and listened, and got the feedback from the landowners and the community members, and we were able to redesign our route to a route that’s nearly 100 percent co-located on existing Northeast Power or Ameren Missouri right-of-way,” said ATXI Vice-President Eric Seidler.

That solution wasn’t always viable, however. For nearly three years, Ameren had tried every other possible alternative, including suing each county for damages for voting against the project. But after local legislators brokered a deal between Ameren and Northeast Power, there was little left for the county commissions to oppose. The court cases are expected to go away if the PSC gives its stamp of approval to the transmission line, and the suit against Adair County has already been dropped.

The project has also had more far-reaching consequences. The legal battle surrounding the line clarified that it only took one county to hold up an interstate transmission project, and the PSC would not approve any project that didn’t have unanimous approval from the counties involved -- much to the chagrin of the privately backed Grain Belt Express that aimed to cross central Missouri.

But Seidler said the bottom line hasn’t changed.

“I think the precedent is the same,” Seidler told KTVO. “We go out and listen to the feedback, and we adjust our routes accordingly. In this particular case, it was mainly about using existing right-of-way.”

Now with county approval, the PSC is expected to once again approve a certificate of convenience and necessity -- Ameren hopes by “first quarter of next year.”

“Assuming that happens, we’d be working with the landowners then to obtain the easement rights, and once we get those easement rights, we would set out the project plan and start construction,” Seidler said. “So could be as early as sometime early 2018 that we begin construction.”

To the many landowners who still have reservations about the project, Seidler said Ameren is committed to working with them.

“We’re appreciative to all the landowners and the community members to get their feedback,” Seidler explained. “It allowed us to develop this partnership that we have that lessens the impact on the land. We’re looking forward to building a project that is needed, but also provides many benefits.”

The line’s in-service date -- which was pushed back after a lengthy court battle that forced the reboot -- remains December 2019.

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