Forthcoming power line improvements stir up concerns in Sal Si Puedes neighborhood

American Electric Power (AEP) is in the early stages of a large-scale electric transmission line improvement project which will affect the residents of the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood near Marfa, where the Alamito Creek substation is located. The weathered steel pole pictured is approximately 85 feet tall and eight feet in diameter. Photo by Stephen “Chick” Rabourn.

MARFA — American Electric Power (AEP) Texas is in the early planning stages of an improvement project to upgrade electric transmission lines that connect Marfa to Fort Davis. 

Updates to the system will involve the Alamito Creek substation in the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood, just outside of Marfa, and flow north, ending at a substation in Fort Davis. Pre-existing wooden poles, which are nearly 100 years old, will be replaced by new, more durable galvanized steel poles. The improvements are vital for the future of Fort Davis’ power supply.

“That substation in Sal Si Puedes is kind of a hub. That line that goes to Fort Davis is the only source of power for Fort Davis, so that’s really why it’s important for us to rebuild that line, just for the sake of reliability,” said Michael Harris, project specialist with AEP.

The Alamito Creek substation connects not only to Fort Davis, but Presidio, Alpine, and another substation in Marfa, causing poles and lines to extend in all directions within the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood. Located just outside of Marfa city limits east of town, Sal Si Puedes is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and consists of a mixture of traditional homes, mobile homes and trailers. 

Many residents have existing easements on their property, which extend 100 feet off center line or 50 feet on either side of the transmission line, a safety consideration which also allows AEP the right of access to maintain and operate the line. 

In a town hall hosted online November 9 by AEP, some residents of the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood and other stakeholders expressed their concerns about the improvements and how they would affect the residential area.

According to AEP, replacing the aging poles will reduce the frequency and duration of outages. The effort will help stabilize the area’s power grid, which, like the rest of the state, has been of higher public concern since last year’s brutal winter storm. Steel poles can also withstand harsher conditions like ice and wind compared to wooden poles. 

The project will involve decommissioning the old route and creating a new route for the transmission lines. Current poles run adjacent to Texas State Highway 17. New routes could follow a similar path or divert through areas further east and west of the highway, passing near the Marfa Airport or residential areas like Mano Prieto. The replacement line will be built to 138 kV specifications, but will continue to operate at its current capacity of 69 kV. Should the need arise, the flexibility will make upgrading in the future easier. The preliminary routes and more project information can be found on AEP’s website:

A map showing possible routes for the new electric transmission lines which will connect the Alamito Creek substation just outside of Marfa to Fort Davis.
Image courtesy of American Electric Power (AEP).

AEP will present route options to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) who is in charge of greenlighting the project before any work can begin. AEP will send the proposal to the PUC for review and approval in early 2022, and begin construction as early as fall 2024, according to their schedule posted online.

During the town hall meeting earlier this month, participants questioned whether the new lines could be buried underground, whether old easements would be terminated and if upgrades would increase the electrical hum already being emitted from the station. 

Periods for public comment are a requirement for a project of this scale and will help AEP get approval from the PUC for the project. AEP is required by law to notify landowners of discussion opportunities if their property lies within 300 feet of any proposed routes. To get the word out about the first meeting, AEP sent notices to landowners using publicly available tax parcel ids.

AEP’s project outreach specialist Harris said one of the biggest concerns that came out of the meeting was that AEP was not doing enough to address the Spanish-speaking population in the area. 

“That’s been a big point of emphasis in the two weeks since we held that town hall, to get a lot of our materials translated into Spanish,” said Harris. 

Harris apologized for the oversight and explained translated materials are being added to the project website. He said AEP Spanish-speaking staff can also be made available to the public, including members of their right of way crew, who oversee construction work, and members of the regulatory group. 

Potential beautification of the Alamito Creek substation was also a topic of discussion at the town hall. The substation itself will not undergo significant improvements but has been updated in the recent past. Harris said AEP will weigh the financial and logistical feasibility of beautification but right now nothing is off the table. 

“I think right now, there’s just a lot of discussion about, ‘Well, what could we do? What would that look like?’” said Harris.

Shelley Bernstein, executive director of Big Bend Conservation Alliance, called in to the meeting and has since reached out to AEP to offer assistance with spreading awareness about the project in Sal Si Puedes. 

“Several people who attended the meeting surfaced the need for public notices and informational materials in Spanish and that more neighborhood outreach to the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood was needed,” said Bernstein. “Big Bend Conservation Alliance has subsequently written to AEP offering to assist with community outreach, so all members of the Marfa community, especially those living in Sal Si Puedes, have a chance to understand the project’s impacts and be heard.”

Robert Halpern, a Sal Si Puedes resident of 21 years whose property will be affected by the upgrades, participated in the town hall and said the residents present were not representative of Sal Si Puedes’ population, with more white, English speaking residents represented than Hispanic or Spanish-speaking populations. Halpern said residents new to the area may not be aware they can push back against such a large, powerful entity as AEP.

“I could see a little reticence on their part to join if Spanish is their primary language and these are their early years in the United States and they don’t know you can talk back nicely to a big company,” said Halpern.

He said he plans to reach out to his neighbors to spread awareness about the improvement project and hopes others do the same. Halpern expressed a desire to learn more about the pre-existing infrastructure in the area, like the current routes of all the power lines and which ones may change. But the idea of more electric lines and steel poles popping up in an already infrastructure-crowded area is distressing, said Halpern.

“We just have a ton of infrastructure, and we don’t want more,” said Halpern. 

Architect and Sal Si Puedes resident of over 15 years Stephen “Chick” Rabourn said previous updates to the lines in the area were shocking and made the environment feel less inhabitable. The sheer size difference between the homes and power lines, which can be up to 85 feet tall and 8 feet wide, degrades property values, said Rabourn. 

“It’s the drastic jump in scale in the direct proximity of dwellings that I think is most problematic for AEP at this point,” said Rabourn. “Much of the damage is already done but we want to work with AEP to reduce the number and size of any new transmission poles in the neighborhood to the bare minimum.”