Noe Valley Voice June 1998

Our Wires Will Be Underground in The Next Millennium (We Hope)

By Pat Rose

Late last spring, after more than a year of canvassing and cajoling their neighbors to sign petitions asking the city to put their utility wires and poles underground, the residents of the 4300 block of 26th Street got something of a shock.

When they collected their papers to trot down to City Hall, the Department of Public Works informed them that it had established a new protocol for scheduling undergrounding work, and neighborhood petitions were no longer being accepted.

"It was pretty discouraging to work for months and then have it all fall apart," said Bill Goodman, one of the residents who led the drive to go underground. "We probably spent 200 hours organizing and talking to our neighbors."

Under the old petition system, residents who wanted to get on the priority list for undergrounding -- which had a five- to eight-year wait, as opposed to 30 to 100 years without petitioning -- needed to get 65 percent of the homeowners in a four-block area to agree to the work.

Goodman said it was tough convincing his neighbors, especially since the undergrounding had a $5,000 price tag per home. (The $5,000 covered the cost of connecting the home to the new underground service and putting up new streetlights.)

But he and his group felt it was important to do the job, for aesthetic as well as safety reasons. "We have these ugly overhead cobra streetlights and utility lines that look like they belong on a freeway overpass, instead of in a neighborhood of beautiful Victorians."

Under the city's new five-year plan -- a deal worked out with PG&E last spring just as Goodman and his neighbors were getting ready to submit their petitions -- PG&E will underground 42 miles of overhead power lines and replace the streetlights in areas that are already scheduled for gas main replacement. According to DPW, that's 420 blocks over the next five years, out of 10,000 blocks that remain to be undergrounded in the city.

While PG&E will pay for most of the undergrounding work, under a program mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), other utilities, including telephone and cable companies, will pick up the cost of burying their own wires. The city will pay for installing the new streetlights, with revenue it receives from former PG&E customers -- customers who were returned to the city as part of a recent settlement with PG&E.

The new plan saves everyone money, including residents, who no longer have to foot the bill for the streetlights. PG&E estimates that the cost to owners of single-family homes will be $1,000 to $1,500 to hook up their new utility lines.

According to Tom Trimbur of DPW's Utility Undergrounding Program, the current schedule is driven primarily by safety issues, as well as by funding levels set by the CPUC.

Sites given priority include areas that carry a heavy volume of pedestrian and automobile traffic, such as Castro Street, as well as neighborhoods with older gas mains. Also high on the list are public parks and spaces, and capital improvement projects such as Chinatown Alley and the Third Street Light Rail Project.

Trimbur says the city has been able to honor all residential petitions filed through the spring of 1997, and those neighborhoods have now been scheduled for undergrounding work. In Noe Valley they include Duncan and Newberg streets, set for 2001; Laidley and 30th streets, set for 1999; and the Liberty Hill area, set for the year 2000. The Dolores Heights area (21st and Sanchez) is currently midway through the process.

Trimbur points out that the new five-year plan is the city's first attempt to accelerate its undergrounding work, an effort that was started 100 years ago in the downtown and South of Market areas. Over that time, he says, one-third, or about 1,500 miles, of San Francisco's utility lines have been put underground.

Trimbur notes that the new plan has already sped up what used to be a very slow process: 67 city blocks are set for undergrounding this year, as compared to seven blocks completed in 1994.

But where does that leave 26th Street?

According to John Fadeff of DPW, the 4300 block of 26th Street is scheduled for gas work sometime after the year 2002. "People call us and want a date and we can't give them one, because it's all dependent on a broader process," Fadeff says.

The reason his office is so vague, he adds, is that no one knows for sure what will happen when the current five-year plan is up -- in the year 2002. Whether the joint undergrounding and gas main proj-ect will be extended -- or the petition system reinstated -- is the subject of ongoing debate among DPW, PG&E, and the Board of Supervisors.

In the meantime, Fadeff advises residents to send a letter stating their interest in getting rid of the overhead wires and telephone poles on their street.

The city will put them on a mailing list and let them know when they can tackle the next mound of red tape.