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.

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