No clear funding for burying city’s wires

A program to bury San Francisco’s overhead utility wires underground will end next year, and with no more state funding expected until 2019, a utility bill surcharge to continue the work could be on the horizon.

Today, the Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing to discuss The City’s undergrounding program and the findings of a task force charged with investigating the potential for future undergrounding within San Francisco.

The current program was launched in 1997 with the goal of burying 45.8 miles of utility wires by 2008. Even with that project completed, nearly half of The City’s utility wires — 47.5 percent (480 miles) — will still hang overhead.

Underground utility lines are safer, more reliable and more aesthetically pleasing, said Dan McKenna, a deputy bureau manager with the Department of Public Works.

The process of burying the utility lines — which also includes making new service connectors for each property and sometimes replacing streetlights that were wired to the utility poles — is time-consuming and costly.

The current cost for undergrounding is nearly $4 million per mile. Moving forward, the “fully loaded” cost, with all ancillary requirements, is estimated at $5.7 million per mile, McKenna said.

The program is funded through a state mandate, Rule 20A, that requires California utility companies to designate a portion of rate-payer fees to undergrounding. Cost increases, however, have led The City to borrow against Rule 20A funds for 12 years into the future, according to a January task force report.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said his pre-election meetings with constituents revealed that “every neighborhood” wants their utility wires underground.

“It’s just a huge cost and someone’s got to pay for it, and no one wants to pay for it,” Newsom said.

The Mayor’s Office is investigating ways to jump-start a new undergrounding program, including a possible surcharge on residents’ utility bills, said Stuart Sunshine, one of Newsom’s top advisers.

A 5 percent electric and gas monthly surcharge would yield $42.2 million annually, according to the task force report — enough money to complete 7.4 miles per year.

But procuring funding for additional undergrounding would not be the only challenge; which neighborhoods get priority for the work is also expected to provoke controversy.

To date, the majority of the undergrounding workhas been implemented in the northeast quadrant of The City. Previously, planning has not attempted to even out the undergrounding citywide, but it has been shaped by such factors as neighborhood demand and planned public-works projects that would already be tearing up the streets, McKenna said.

“Certain parts of The City have been left out,” said Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who called for the task force and today’s hearing. “I’m amazed that people on the west side of San Francisco are not up in arms.”

A tangle in the sky

San Francisco’s overhead utility wires, by the numbers

» 990: Total miles of utility wires in The City

» 53: Percentage of utility-wire miles that will be underground as of 2008

» 470: Miles of utility wires that remain overhead

» $5.7 million: Estimated cost per mile (in 2006) to move wires underground

Source: Utility undergrounding task force report to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, January 2006

beslinger@examiner.com  

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