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City without wires dream continues

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Wednesday January 09, 2002

A dream for Berkeley is getting rid of all the telephone poles in town. But the city needs just a little help from homeowners. 

The Department of Public Works is gearing up to launch a informational campaign to achieve what a city Underground Utilities Task Force once called a “Berkeley Without Wires.” 

The only problem: owners of homes in a would-be pole-free zone must themselves pay the high costs of moving power, cable and telephone lines underground. 

Several neighborhood associations have expressed an interest in forming “applicant-financed underground utility districts” to privately finance the removal of unsightly and potentially dangerous utility poles, according to Lorin Jensen, a civil engineer in the Department of Public Works. 

None of them have gotten off the ground yet, though, and some residents are starting to express concern that the scheme may be doomed to failure. 

“I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “It would cost about $20,000 to $25,000 per household, and I think that’s a pretty insurmountable amount.” 

Mel Webber, a resident of the El Dorado/Del Norte neighborhood, said early estimates of the cost had proved daunting, but his group was continuing to study the issue. 

“The estimates are too high, but we’re hoping we can get them down,” he said. “The cheaper the better.” 

Since the late 1960s, undergrounding has been supported by the utility ratepayers. 

By order of the California Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric places a 3 1/3 percent surcharge on every electric bill in the state. The money collected by the surcharge is place in an “undergrounding” fund that cities can use to move utilities underground in key neighborhoods. 

Many such projects have already been completed in Berkeley over the years. Wires along Martin Luther King Way and University Avenue, as well as in many neighborhoods, have been placed underground. 

Currently, work is proceeding on the undergrounding project for lines along Arlington Avenue in northeast Berkeley. Ratepayer funds will be next used to do work on Park Hills Road. 

However, the utility money has always been slow in coming, and there are continual fears that PG&E may discontinue the program altogether. 

Supporters of the private utility districts say that they could speed up the process considerably. 

“It’s one of the options that the CPUC has always had in place – if applicants want this, they can organize to get it without waiting for the PG&E money,” said Carlene St. John, a member of the Public Works Commission. 

However, apart from the high costs of undergrounding, residents interested in pursuing private financing face an uphill battle in getting their neighbors to sign on. Seventy percent of homeowners in a proposed district must commit funds to the undergrounding for the project to proceed. 

However, if a neighborhood is able to demonstrate this level of support, the city has offered staff support and guidance to support the project.  

“Hats off to Berkeley for this,” said Jason Alderman, a PG&E spokesperson. Alderman said that Berkeley is one of the few communities in the state that is promoting the private alternative. 


There will be a public meeting to discuss private underground utility districts on Thursday, Jan. 17 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. Members of various city departments will be on hand to take questions.