Connecticut’s two major electric utilities pledged to significantly expand field crews as they begin shifting their primary focus Thursday from removing safety hazards and assessing damage to restoring power.
Meanwhile, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, will join him Thursday on a tour of storm damage in Connecticut and that limited commuter rail service would resume from Stamford without fares.
Metro North service would resume only from Stamford into Grand Central Station. Malloy said Connecticut would charge no fares on Thursday and Friday into New York, and New York would charge nothing for the trip to Stamford.
Malloy announced the free fares late Wednesday night, soon after Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced free travel on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s trains, buses and subways.
Hours earlier, executives from Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating repeated their intentions to present their first broad-scale restoration projections — when 95 percent or more of their customers would have power restored — starting Thursday morning.
“Tomorrow the focus really shifts,” said Tony Marone, senior vice president of United Illuminating.
Bill Quinlan, CL&P’s senior vice president for emergency preparedness, said the out-of-state contingent of line repair and tree removal contract workers would grow from 1,718 Wednesday to 2,268 by Thursday — a jump of 32 percent. This group will complement 400 line repair workers on CL&P’s regular staff and another 300 tree-removal contractors based in Connecticut with which the utility regularly works.
And CL&P will not only meet, but surpass, its goal for the tree-removal component of its workforce, Quinlan said.
The company’s set a pre-storm goal of bringing 700 out-of-state tree removal workers into Connecticut before the cleanup ends. The 2,200-plus total CL&P workforce on the ground Thursday will include 888 tree-removal contractors from out-of-state, Quinlan said.
It became clear that storm Sandy, with wind gusts as high as 85 mph, caused “substantial tree damage,” Quinlan said. “We wanted to bring in all the tree workers necessary” to meet the need.
Marone said his utility’s overall line repair and tree-removal workforce would grow from 525 on Wednesday to 725 on Thursday, a 38 percent increase.
Since Sandy moved out of the area early Tuesday, both UI and CL&P have focused largely on fixing safety hazards — such as clearing live, downed power lines — assessing damage and restoring power to hospitals, police and fire stations, municipal buildings, sewage treatment plants and other priorities set by cities and towns, utility executives said.
“We continue to make very good progress” in these areas, Quinlan said, adding that while some work in this area will continue, CL&P will move into “full-restoration mode starting tomorrow.”
Though sites critical to public health and safety remain top priority, Quinlan said the utility’s next focus will be those regions with large numbers of outages: primarily the state’s southeastern and southwestern corners.
“Gradually we will work our way into the [other neighborhoods],” he said.
CL&P, which serves more than 1.2 million residential and business customers, reported fewer than 325,000 outages during a 4 p.m. briefing at the State Armory in Hartford — about 40 hours after Hurricane Sandy subsided.
UI, which serves roughly 325,000 customers along Connecticut’s central and western shorelines, reported 125,000 outages as of 4 p.m.
To monitor restoration, check the online outage maps: CL&P and United Illuminating.
Criticism from Bridgeport
On Wednesday, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch harshly criticized United Illuminating for what he called a slow response to power outages in the city.
“I am very frustrated,” Finch said at a press briefing at Bridgeport’s emergency operations center Wednesday morning. “We do not believe that Bridgeport is getting its fair share of attention.”
As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, 38,500 customers in Bridgeport were still without power — about the same number as were in the dark Tuesday.
Finch suggested that the utility was paying more attention to the smaller, wealthier suburbs surrounding Bridgeport. “I’m sick and tired of Bridgeport being shortchanged,” he said.
UI spokesman Michael West said the company was working hard to restore power. “UI does not pick any favorites,” he said.
West said city officials may have been confused by the announcement from the utility that it had re-energized three key downtown substations in Bridgeport Tuesday morning. UI had pre-emptively shut those down before the worst of Sandy hit, affecting about 50,000 customers in greater Bridgeport. But re-energizing them does not mean the power will immediately come back on for those customers.
“The way substations works is, once you ‘unplug’ [them], if you will, you have to make sure that you can reconnect those customers safely,” West said. “Just to energize it back up without verifying that all of the paths downstream are safe, you could have some catastrophic damage.”
UI crews on Wednesday were checking circuits from those power stations to make sure they were safe to be turned back on, West said, and customers should slowly begin to see their power come back on.
Bridgeport School Superintendant Paul Vallas said Wednesday that power was restored to the city’s three high schools Wednesday and that it was possible they would open on Thursday. But he also expressed frustration that other city schools still had no power.
“Our schools are ready to open,” Vallas said. “We’re just waiting for electricity.”
CL&P — after taking nine and 12 days, respectively, to restore power following two damaging 2011 storms — absorbed considerable criticism. Its former president, Jeff Butler, resigned last fall after the company failed to meet its own power restoration projection after an October nor’easter that caused more than 800,000 outages.
“We’re going to give you the best possible restoration estimate and … we’re going to do everything in our power to deliver,” Quinlan said.
Malloy, who was one of CL&P’s strongest critics last fall, said during Wednesday’s briefing that he understands public frustration and will monitor the utility’s restoration projections closely.
“People who don’t have power are beginning to lose their patience,” the governor said. “Trust me, I get it.
“Let’s wait and see what [utility officials] say,” Malloy added. “And then please know that I’ll do my best to hold them accountable to the people of Connecticut.”
The governor, who spent his second consecutive day Wednesday touring much of the damage in southern Connecticut, again emphasized the damage that flooding and gusting winds did to the shoreline.
“I saw roads washed out today,” he said. “I saw houses washed out to sea. … We’re going to be at this for a while.”
Limited rail service
The governor and state Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker also announced that the Metro-North commuter rail service would resume Thursday morning in limited capacity.
The service would run between Stamford and Manhattan, Redeker said, adding that rail lines between New Haven and Stamford still are not ready for use, though officials hope two of the four lines might be serviceable by Friday. Shoreline East service also would resume Thursday.
Redeker also said that Connecticut applied Wednesday for $6 million in emergency federal transportation funds to repair two flood-damaged bridges and a seawall.
Follow Keith Phaneuf on Twitter. Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter. Neena Satija contributed to this report.