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Outages at PG&E-owned streetlights in San Francisco increases 442 percent

Outages of PG&E-owned streetlights in San Francisco have quadrupled in recent years — a rate much higher than in other areas — and it comes while the utility giant plans to charge The City more for maintaining the unreliable lights.

In 2008, there were 773 burnouts reported. The following year, the total jumped to 2,103, according to PG&E data presented to the California Public Utilities Commission.

In 2011, the most recent year from which data are available, there were 4,191 outages reported. That's an increase of 442.2 percent over the four-year span — and a much-worse service record than in other nearby jurisdictions, where burnouts increased just 24.4 percent, according to CPUC data.

PG&E owns and operates about 18,000 streetlights here, which is roughly 40 percent of The City's total. Outages can take up to a month to repair, according to a 2012 city memo.

The utility is moving to raise by nearly 40 percent the rates it charges San Francisco to maintain these lights.

If state regulators approve the increase, The City's bill for maintaining PG&E's streetlights will increase by $600,000 a year.

That bigger bill doesn't come with any commitments for improved service, according to a CPUC memo. City officials want a clearer picture from PG&E on how that extra money is going to be spent, and if it can go toward keeping the lights on.

“A 442 percent increase in streetlight problems over four years is not a good track record,” said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which maintains about 50,000 streetlights of its own.

PG&E's infrastructure is old and some of the lights it operates are on outdated “string loop circuits,” which — like Christmas lights — leads to multiple burnouts when one bulb goes out, said PG&E spokesman Jason King.

The utility's record-keeping also is poor, according to Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is planning a hearing on streetlight performance in fall. PG&E was expected by the end of the year to produce a digital map of where its lights are located in San Francisco, but that has been pushed back to 2016.

City leaders would ultimately like to see all lights operated by the SFPUC, but PG&E would want a “significant payout” to buy a light system with “tens of millions of dollars” of deferred maintenance, Wiener said.

“Our infrastructure problem,” he said, “is significant.”

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