Utilities halt programs to bury unsightly power lines

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Posted at 9:59 p.m. PST Thursday, Feb. 15, 2001

Companies say they can not pay for work Utilities halt programs to bury unsightly power lines BY TRACEY KAPLAN Mercury News

California's energy crisis has halted a 32-year effort to bury unsightly power lines that has spiffed up views of some of the state's most famous scenic spots -- including Mendocino and the Golden Gate Bridge -- and lowered fire danger in high-risk areas.

The state's two largest utilities, which have billed consumers about $1.6 billion since 1968 to put electric wires underground, have quietly discontinued the program in their push to conserve cash. The abrupt suspension leaves more than 30 communities throughout the state in the lurch, with projects stopped midstream or stalled indefinitely.

Administrators for the financially strapped utilities say they no longer can pay for the work in advance, as required by law. A spokeswoman for Pacific Gas & Electric said the company will re-evaluate the situation in six months; Southern California Edison has no timetable to resume such projects, called undergrounding. San Diego Gas & Electric is considering dropping its program.

But advocates say removing overhead electric wires subtly adds to the quality of life in California and eliminates the risk of lines sparking fires in vulnerable areas like the Oakland hills.

``It would be a shame if, as part of the energy crisis, California permanently loses programs which have as their main aim beautification of the built environment,'' said State Librarian Kevin Starr, a noted historian. ``But it's a very understandable byproduct of the crisis. When you have the present dysfunction, more than electricity is going to be at risk.''

PG&E spokeswoman Staci Homrig said the utility recognizes that cities are disappointed, ``but this is the only responsible thing to do at this time. We intend to resume the projects as soon as we are financially able.''

Last month, the utilities notified the state Public Utilities Commission of their decision. The PUC has not officially approved the move, but the agency is not expected to force the utilities to resume undergrounding during the crisis.

PG&E's 4.5 million customers pay an average of $10.02 a year for undergrounding; Edison's customers pay $5.65. The utilities say they will continue to bill customers -- up to 83 cents a month -- because they are owed money for work they've already performed. The fee is not listed separately on the monthly bill.

Statewide, only about 3,000 of 170,000 miles of overhead lines have been converted. It's taken three decades to accomplish because burying the lines costs a whopping $1 million a mile. The cost is spread out over the entire ratepayer base.

Property owners and cities contribute to undergrounding by paying for new streetlights and the conduit, cable and meter panel linking the street connection to homes and businesses.

Homrig said that since the undergrounding projects ``do little to enhance safety and reliability, we need to focus on other operations that do,'' including responding to downed wires and gas leaks.

Public safety concerns

But state Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Oakland, said undergrounding is essential for public safety because it helps prevent devastating fires caused by overhead lines. City officials around the state also contend that burying wires makes it easier to trim trees and fight fires caused by any source, and it makes neighborhoods safer because cities can put up streetlights wherever they are needed, rather than placing them only on utility poles.

``It's not just aesthetics,'' said Tim Trimbur, coordinator of San Francisco's program and a member of the League of California Cities' undergrounding subcommittee.

PG&E does not report how many fires are caused by electric lines slapping together or snapping in high winds. But in wildland areas, the California Department of Forestry reports that electric power caused 4 percent of the 6,621 fires in the past five years.

In the Oakland hills, an arcing PG&E line touched off a fire on Asilomar Drive in 1995, destroying three homes. Last fall near Alum Rock Park, two PG&E power lines crossed and ignited vegetation during a windstorm. One home was destroyed and several others near the park were damaged.

``We're in an urban forestland, and we get Santa Ana winds in the fall and we live in absolute terror,'' said Oakland City Councilman Dick Spees, adding that residents are haunted by the 1991 firestorm that destroyed more than 3,000 homes and killed 25 people. Investigators could not determine the cause.

Worried about fires, Oakland hills homeowner Roger Brett worked for 16 years to get an undergrounding project going in his neighborhood, only to see it come to a grinding halt when PG&E stopped work earlier this month. Brett and many of his 225 neighbors already have paid a connection fee of $2,000 and begun making payments on a $4,000 charge for new streetlights to replace those on utility poles.

``We've hit roadblocks before, but this is possibly the most major because you just don't know when PG&E will come out of this,'' Brett said.

Cities also delay plans

Campbell and Mountain View are among other communities that must abandon or delay projects. Mountain View had planned to widen Evelyn Avenue between Stevens Creek and Pioneer Way, and at the same time bury the electric wires. Now the city is hoping PG&E will at least be able to move the overhead utility lines to the edge of the newly widened street, otherwise motorists will have to put up with the current bottleneck.

``The contractor started two weeks ago, and then this happened,'' said Bob Kagiama, the city's public works director.

Most of the 31 cities in California that provide their own electricity, including Palo Alto, will continue their underground conversion, said Jerry Jordan, head of the California Municipal Utilities Association.

Undergrounding began in 1968, when California became one of the first states in the nation to embrace the notion. The state also prohibited overhead lines in most new subdivisions. At the time, Lady Bird Johnson was promoting highway and civic beautification projects with the slogan ``Keep America Beautiful.''

As a result of the program, thickets of utility lines no longer obscure the views in some of the state's most prized spots, from the Golden Gate Bridge and Ocean Beach in San Francisco to the Silver Strand on Coronado Island.

Undergrounding also has helped rejuvenate older downtowns such as San Jose's, city officials contend.

``You can look at old pictures of San Jose, and one thing that stands out is they just have this morass of utility lines,'' said Jim Foley, San Jose's deputy director of public works:. ``Now all that is gone.''

Prompted by the state Legislature, the PUC has been studying whether the utilities should consider public safety and reliability as well as beautification when distributing undergrounding funds.

But critics, including a consumer group called the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, oppose any rate hikes to cover the program.

``Our concern is whether it benefits general ratepayers or just wealthy neighborhoods,'' said Mindy Spatt, the group's spokeswoman.

Consumer costs

Consumers statewide now spend about $132 million a year on undergrounding. The cost is likely to rise if more factors, such as public safety, are considered.

Undergrounding specialist Bill Gaffney, of the California Public Utilities Commission, acknowledged that middle- and upper-income residents are better able to afford their share of the costs. Some cities foot those costs themselves.

But Gaffney also said all Californians who enjoy the state's scenic beauty benefit from the program, which has cleaned up major thoroughfares from the Embarcadero to parts of Highway 1.

``We hope this is truly only a suspension, not a cancellation,'' said David Jones, a legislative representative with the League of California Cities.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 16, 2001

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