Photograph by Don Nolte

Photograph by Don Nolte

The jumble of wires like those seen from any Potrero Hill residence.

May 2014

San Francisco Coalition Seeks to Underground Utilities

Keith Burbank

At a late March meeting, the Potrero Boosters voted unanimously to endorse a new group organized to underground San Francisco’s utility wires, including power and telephone lines. About half of the City’s utility wires remain overhead, including some on the Hill. The organization, the San Francisco Coalition to Underground Utilities, is speaking at neighborhood association gatherings to raise support for its efforts. 

“We need Potrero Hill,” said Ann Brubaker, coalition chair. “We need your endorsement. We need your bodies to step up to the plate to do the work. We are coming hat in hand. Come with us.” The coalition hopes to marshal support for its efforts from the Board of Supervisors. “We want a program structured by them that will get the job done,” Brubaker said. “It will need to be administered by them. They will have to put an initiative on the ballot.” Already behind the coalition are the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, Cow Hollow Association, Diamond Heights Community Association, Miraloma Park Improvement Club and Russian Hill Neighbors. 

In 2008, Pacific Gas and Electric Company stopped burying existing utility wires. A non-representative City survey of 3,013 City residents implemented in 2006 found that 89 percent of homeowners and 66 percent of renters were “very interested in the City’s efforts to remove utility wires and poles.” Eighty-eight percent of the respondents lived in areas with wires overhead. According to David Bancroft, a coalition member, under current plans it may take upwards of 30 years before undergrounding work begins again.

Boosters first vice president Dick Millet said he favors putting utilities underground because overhead wires are unsightly and hazardous. “All developers should be required to underground wires,” said Millet. Other Boosters echoed the idea during the meeting. 

“Help me find a funding source,” District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen told Brubaker after the meeting. But Brubaker said she’s not asking the City for money. She’s looking for the supervisors to lead the effort. Without their leadership, she fears the effort will fail. According to Brubaker, the coalition has no intention of running a program to bury the wires, which should be a municipal function. The coalition is an effort to get the City to finish a stalled project, she said. “It can’t be citywide without our government.”

At the start of the meeting, the SFCUU showed a film depicting municipalities across the world— such as Hamburg, Paris and Bonn—without overhead utility wires. The same film showed various San Francisco neighborhoods with wires, a mass and tangle of lines in some places. A few City communities — St. Francis Woods being one— have had their utilities buried. According to a 2006 report by the Utility Undergrounding Task Force, currently disbanded, areas of the City with wires currently underground benefited from City or PG&E funds. The utility passes on the costs to ratepayers “as capital improvements through the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC),” the report says. In 2004, the Board of Supervisors commissioned the task force to study and make recommendations for burying the balance of the City’s utilities. The task force suggested developing a long-term master plan and a “properly funded program” to underground all wires within 50 years. Suggestions included involving residents in the decision-making process, asking the CPUC to approve a surcharge on San Francisco residents to help pay for the effort, seeking alternative funding sources, establishing a policy of no new overhead wires and implementing a program that reduces project timelines by half and project costs by one-quarter. 

“It is doable,” said Steven Edwards, another coalition member. “The roadmap is here,” referring to the task force’s report. The report recommended beginning with areas having the greatest amount of overhead wires. Overall, 390 miles of wires in San Francisco are left to bury, excluding 70 miles of rear-yard utility wires. The cost to bury the wires is estimated at $5.7 million (2006 dollars) per mile, or $2.3 billion all in. 

Brubaker said costs continue to rise with new construction. “So, every day there are more wires,” she said. Last year, 780 of the new PG&E connections in the City were overhead, while 3,223 were underground, according to data from the company. 

“I have to say when it was done it was amazing,” said a Mississippi Street resident whose street’s wires were buried. 

“Think of the number of trees we could have,” Brubaker replied. She cited San Diego as an example for San Francisco. According to San Diego’s Transportation and Stormwater Department’s website, each year the city buries 30 to 35 miles of its wires. “They have pole removal ceremonies, Brubaker said. She’s called for people to support the coalition’s work with time and skills. The group needs media and marketing people, and someone to staff the website. “People come and go,” she said.


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