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
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.
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
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.