Efforts to bury all utility wires in SF nearly impossible

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Thursday, January 22, 2015
Efforts to bury all utility wires in SF nearly impossible
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Despite efforts to underground utility wires in San Francisco and the rest of the state, the actual project could take centuries.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There are 152,000 miles of overhead utility lines in California. That's enough wires to wrap around the globe more than six times. They are ugly and dangerous. For the last 50 years there have been efforts to put them underground, but there's still a long way to go.

There are wires for cable, phones, power and some wires that seem to go nowhere, a spider web of utility lines all over California.

"There are wires and poles everywhere," said Alex Aybes. He lives on a quiet street in San Francisco's Castro District. Outside his home, utility lines crisscross the road.

"It's a blight in the city," Aybes added.

To make matters worse, people have been paying to get rid of the wires for the last 50 years, but they are still here.

Utility customers pay about a dollar a month for a program that is supposed to bury all those wires. At the current rate of replacement, it will take generations to finish the project.

San Francisco Coalition to Underground Utilities chair Anne Brubaker said, "It will take 600 years."

Brubaker explained San Francisco is among the worst places for overhead utility wires in the state. She says, not only are they an eye sore, they are dangerous.

Overhead power lines are especially vulnerable in earthquakes and storms. One downed wire can take out power for thousands of people.

"A mylar balloon last year in Noe Valley hit the wires, took out 10,000 residents," said Brubaker.

San Francisco has already put roughly half of its utility lines underground, but 470 miles of wires still remain. Despite the threat of outages, the city has no plan to bury the remaining wires because it has already spent the money.

The last time the city buried any wires was on project on Octavia Boulevard in 2005. It ran so far over budget the city used up all the money that will be coming in for the next 15 years.

Brubaker added, "San Francisco spent beyond its means in the last round of undergrounding, which has caused it to halt it. However, all citizens of San Francisco continue to pay off that debt."

"I would hope that we've learned our lessons from the past and can actually have a plan moving forward. I think that problem in the past was that we didn't have a plan before," said San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang.

Tang represents the Sunset District. Her district is cluttered with overhead lines that block ocean views.

"Realistically, we cannot rely on just our allocated funding through the CPUC's (California Public Utilities Commission) utility undergrounding program," said Tang.

She has asked the city to explore how it can move forward with future projects. "So that we actually know, 'How long could it take for us to achieve X miles of undergrounding?'" Tang said. "Right now, it's all up in the air, we have no idea. It's literally all up in the air."

Tang hopes to have a recommendation to move forward to the rest of the Board of Supervisors later this year.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel