Electricity and Phone Wires Continue to Blight Landscape

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San Francisco has a long history of investing in municipal improvements, including preserving open spaces, cleaning up the Bay and beautifying the Embarcadero.  But one effort to improve aesthetics has struggled to find funding:  undergrounding the City’s 400 miles of utility wires.

Overheard wires are more than an eyesore; underground wires are safer during natural disasters and intense weather, according to a report by the City of Berkeley’s Public Works Commission. However, it’s expensive to underground, and can lengthen the amount of time it takes to restore services during distribution-related outages. The last time any wires in San Francisco were undergrounded was in 2005, on Octavia Street, at an estimated cost of $1 million per mile. 

District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang is calling for $500,000 to be added to this year’s municipal budget to support the development of a master plan for utility undergrounding, including looking at how other cities worldwide successfully created viable plans. 

“We are making progress and need the voters to become more involved with this issue. We are traveling around the City, hosting meetings and educating people on the importance of this issue,” said Anne Brubaker, head of the San Francisco Coalition to Underground Utilities. “I would say 95 percent of people in attendance want to see this change. We are not doing it for us; we are doing it for the future of the City.”

Brubaker is aware that the task will likely outlive many current residents, but believes that voters today need to rally for the San Franciscans of tomorrow, to leave behind an even more beautiful City. She urged View readers to write the mayor in support of undergrounding, and to vote to increase the amount of funds that the community contributes to burying utility infrastructure.

San Diego started undergrounding its wires ten years ago.  Since then, San Diego Gas and Electric Company estimates that 75 percent of its distribution system has been buried, with the removal of 5,000 telephone poles and more than 200 miles of wire now underground.  The effort is being financing with a $3 per household fee on monthly electricity bills.

A potential way to increase undergrounding affordability is to rely on trenchless technology, which is less invasive and has lower costs than traditional methods, which involve digging 18 by upwards of 36 inch trenches on either side of a street, disrupting neighborhoods as the wires are hidden from sight.

“I would love to see less wires crisscrossing my morning walks, it would be great if we could lessen the spider webs above our heads,” said Bernal Heights resident Kyle Quinn.