Utility Undergrounding Moves Forward

The campaign for undergrounding utility wires and ridding our sidewalks of ugly telephone poles took a solid step forward at the August 27, 2019, meeting between the SF Coalition to Underground Utilities (SFCUU) and Telamon Engineering Consultants, Inc.

Telamon Engineering contracted with San Francisco’s Department of Power and Water (DPW) to outline a process to get to a comprehensive plan which will define the utility undergrounding process, ensure the most efficient and cost effective means to achieve it, and identify a potential steady funding source to complete the work of undergrounding. This collaboration should advance the campaign to eliminate these unsightly poles (not including MUNI poles) for improved safety, beauty and tourist revenue.

Funding: Discussion of funding for this ambitious undergrounding project always seems to predominate. At this meeting, neither Telamon nor the SFCUU came up with a definitive answer, although several approaches were discussed and discarded. For example, a bond issue requires voter approval and might be hard to pass, as predicting future costs is impossible. The most likely source of funds at this point seems to be a Utility User Tax. Other communities impose utility taxes, and such a tax already appears on rate-payer bills for San Francisco businesses and cell service users. At present the revenues go into the city’s General Fund but some or all of it could be allotted to undergrounding.

Project Management: Telamon is acting as a bridge between Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), the San Francisco DPW, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to combine their information into a cohesive plan. The hope is that these entities and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) can then can actively coordinate careful project management to keep scope and schedules cost-effective. Previous undergrounding projects helmed by PG&E in 1996 and 2006 seemed to progress with no oversight, no transparency, and no accountability. One unpleasant result of this lack of management was loss of cost control, which inflated costs. Now attempts to base current costs on historical costs produce exaggerated numbers which discourage further progress. Thus Telamon is working on cost-per-mile estimates without relying on PG&E numbers, but by reaching out to contractors who do undergrounding in other areas.

Telamon and SFCUU believe that streets that have not been undergrounded could present significant problems for emergency responders when downed lines and poles prevent access to emergency vehicles in the event of an earthquake or other disaster. Therefore, both groups believe a project manager is needed to get policies written to forward undergrounding. The project manager needs to be empowered to inform PG&E what will be done and by whom. He or she also needs to make sure policies are in place and are followed.

Next Steps: Eric Thrasher of DPW has organized a Community Outreach and Information Meeting on utility wire undergrounding for September 18, 2019 in the Koret Auditorium at the Main Library from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. The format includes a slide presentation on work done to date, followed by a Question and Answer session of about 1 1/2 hours. At the end of the session, a questionnaire will be distributed to garner attendees’ opinions on undergrounding. All members of the public are welcome to attend. A future report will cover the proceedings of that meeting.

San Francisco DPW Authorizes Study for Undergrounding Master Plan

In March of 2019 the San Francisco Department of Public Works signed a contract with Telamon Engineering Consultants, Inc. for a study to lay the groundwork for a master plan to underground overhead utility wires in the city. Funds for the study, approximately $125,000, came from an add-on to the City budget successfully advocated by the San Francisco Coalition to Underground Utilities (SFCUU) in 2017.

The goal of this study is to prepare for a master plan to capture the utility undergrounding process, to ensure effective management of the undergrounding resources, and to identify potential steady funding sources for a citywide program to run for the next fifty years.

The initial study marks the “Design Fee Proposal and Design Schedule” phase. Its scope of services is divided into five major tasks:

  • Project management
  • Initial program assessment
  • Public outreach and participation support
  • Prioritization and implementation strategy
  • Preliminary master workplan and funding plan

At a March 28 meeting with the community-based SFCUU, representatives of Telamon Engineering explained that the project should identify what needs attention — especially paths to funding — and explore technologies available, including subsurface mapping and directional boring.

Work within this scope of services has begun and is ongoing. A preliminary meeting with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is contemplated, to gain their input on the contract completion process. The contract is estimated to be completed by the end of September.

Although this is a positive first step to creating a master plan, it does not commit enough time or resources for a complete study. So the next steps well may be either extending this contract further and/or funding contracts for other parties to continue the investigation forward.SFCUU is continuing our efforts to secure sufficient funding for a complete Master Plan that will set the City on a path to complete undergrounding of San Francisco’s utility wires.

For further information, contact: SF Coalition to Underground Utilities, info@sfcuu.org, Anne Brubaker, Chair

State Legislation Voting to Remove SF City Oversight of Wireless Antenna Installations

Our State Legislature is near passage of SB649:  This bill will remove funds from San Francisco’s annual revenue.  It will take control of our Public Right of Way development review and the development affect on our neighborhoods.
and if you wish to be heard, email your state representatives:
Scott Wiener; scottwiener.com

Look What San Diego is Doing!

Look What San Diego Is Doing!

The city of San Diego has in progress a Utilities Undergrounding Program, currently relocating approximately 15 miles of overhead utility lines underground throughout the city each year.

The program is funded primarily through a 2003 California Public Utilities Commission approved undergrounding surcharge of 3.88% on San Diego residents’ electricity bills.

SFCUU members Steven Edwards and Randall Brubaker were recently welcomed to a visit in San Diego with James Nabong, Utility Undergrounding Program Manager, City of San Diego.  Among other subjects discussed, Mr. Nabong reacted positively to our suggestion that a representative of the City of San Francisco might some day wish to also visit San Diego, to benefit from the experience and knowledge on this subject that now exists there.

From our short visit we learned several other points of interest, including:

1. Undergrounding work in San Diego is now being done by private contractors other than San Diego Gas and Electric. They are putting the work out for bid by qualified contractors.
2. The contractors doing the work are using both trenching and directional boring (trench-less technology). They are experts at both techniques, and use the most appropriate method in each project.
3. San Diego is in progress of refining their master plan from what they have learned since this program began about 12 years ago. Mr. Nabong offered that they would be willing to share with us what they have learned. This is a fantastic opportunity for San Francisco to benefit from the experience of another city.  Hopefully our city will take advantage of this!