Undergrounding program shelved for overhaul

Undergrounding program shelved for overhaul

Michele Ellson
Alameda Municipal Power

Alameda’s Public Utilities Board has agreed to shelve a controversial program to move utility wires underground in order to facilitate an overhaul of the program. The decision followed a 10-month review sparked by concerns over plans for a new underground utility district along and around Webster Street.

“This is not about utility district 31 per se. This about stepping back and looking at the undergrounding program as a whole,” Alameda Municipal Power General Manager Girish Balachandran said at a Public Utilities Board meeting Monday.

Balachandran said the undergrounding program has seen a number of piecemeal changes over its 28 years of existence but that at this point, AMP staffers felt tweaking it further would only waste staff time and heighten community conflict over the program. He credited homeowners who objected to undergrounding plans for spurring the overhaul effort.

The utility’s managers want to create a new master plan for the program that offers clearer prioritization for undergrounding projects, addresses who’s responsible for covering undergrounding costs and allows public input on the plan and projects. A timeline for creating the plan and submitting it to the City Council for approval has not yet been set.

Members of the utility board and residents alike cheered plans to revamp the undergrounding program.

“I agree that we should start from the beginning and take a moment to readdress this issue,” Marisa Lenhardt told the board Monday.

The council adopted procedures for creating underground utility districts in 1984 and approved the city’s first district a little over a year later. They directed AMP to set aside two percent of its revenues to help cover the costs of placing electric wires in underground trenches.

But the priorities for considering which areas were candidates for undergrounding projects changed several times over the years, as did the amount of money property owners were expected to pay to put their own utility connections underground. Covering the costs of undergrounding and clearly prioritizing projects – possibly to focus the utility’s dollars on projects that are deemed to provide a public benefit – are two major considerations expected to be addressed in the new plan.

The council approved a sixth phase of undergrounding in 2004 that would add a dozen new underground utility districts to the 29 that were already in existence, which were largely in commercial areas (newer residential developments like Harbor Bay were built with their wiring underground). One of the newly approved districts, which covers residential Bay Street and some surrounding streets south of Central Avenue, was completed in 2010.

Residents in that neighborhood were told in 2008 that they could face costs of more than $7,700 to dig a trench and place laterals connecting their electric service, depending on who their cable provider was. The electric company covered costs topping $1,767 for undergrounding their own wires, but they did not subsidize the cost of placing telephone, Comcast cable or other telecommunications wires.

Residents and business owners on and around Webster Street between Central and Pacific avenues, which was to be the next district, complained they couldn’t afford the cost of undergrounding their utility wires. And they expressed concerns about the added liability they’d face after placing the wires underground and about potential flooding issues.

AMP staff had considered a financing option that would allow electric customers to spread out the costs of placing their hookups underground and also re-prioritizing undergrounding projects based on customer desire to take the wires down. But some said they feared the changes would mean that future projects would take place in only affluent areas where customers could afford to split the cost with AMP.

“I think it’s very important that when you are using public funds, the public benefit is considered,” said David Baker, a resident in the Webster Street neighborhood that was to become the next underground district.

AMP considers 16 different criteria when assessing whether to move forward with an undergrounding project, with the criteria in no particular order of importance. Other utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric and the City of Palo Alto, place a higher priority on projects that offer a clear public benefit than on those requested by customers, according to a staff report.

Different utilities handle the cost and maintenance for the projects differently, with some offering loans and more financial assistance and others leaving it up to property owners to cover the cost of putting their electric and telecommunications wires underground.

The utility subsidizes costs for homeowners but not commercial property owners, the report says. It has 433 customers in existing utility districts and 17,300 customers whose wires are underground, the report says.

AMP’s efforts to revamp the program drew praise from residents and others who had criticized the Webster undergrounding effort and from members of the utility board.

“The lack of sunshine and openness in the previous movement toward undergrounding – especially around Webster Street – created a lot of ill will, which is unfortunate,” resident Corinne Lambden said. “Most of us realize that undergrounding pub utilities is certainly a public benefit.”