Public Comment

Public Funds for Underground Wiring

By Pamela Doolan
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

Berkeley’s Public Works Commission is in the process of changing the criteria for allocating PG&E 20A public funds for underground wiring. It has been a process without public input or consideration from other city commissions. 

PG&E gives each of 256 cities an allocation of funds for undergrounding. The city prioritizes the projects; PG&E will advise and help. The usual time line from beginning to end is three to five years. According to PG&E, the current 20A publicly funded projects in Berkeley are well over 16 years from completion. 

A subcommittee of the Public Works Commission presented a “Workshop on 20A Underground Wiring” to the City Council on May 20, prior to a regular council meeting. Few from the public were present and no report was available prior to the meeting for review. The following street criteria for future PG&E 20A Public Funds were recommended to the council. All three conditions must be met for funding: 

A. Designation as arterial in the General Plan 

B. Designation as Emergency route in the General Plan 

C. Priority to streets with higher traffic volumes 

How the subcommittee of the Public Works Commission decided on this proposal for underground funding is a complete mystery. One thing is clear, the “new” criteria would eliminate large areas of Berkeley from future consideration. For example, there is not a single “arterial” street in Northeast Berkeley as defined by the General Plan. Furthermore, the recommendation does not take into consideration the “higher traffic volume” that will occur on all collector streets after a catastrophe. Despite the vulnerability of Northeast Berkeley to potential disaster, not a single street would be eligible for future public funding. 

Though the City Council suggested a more public process, nothing has happened. The intent is to have the criteria established by January in order to start the planning process for the next funding allocation. Time is of the essence. The Disaster Fire Commission, not consulted, sent a letter to the Public Works Commission expressing an interest in being informed and involved in the planning for 20A Underground Wire Funding criteria especially as it relates to emergency routes and fire hazards due to overhead power lines. 

The City of Berkeley needs a strategic plan for use of public funds to underground the wires and reduce the hazard of the poles and wires throughout the city. They are not only a visual blight, they are an extreme earthquake, landslide and fire hazard, especially in the hills. Undergrounding will increase the ability of emergency vehicles to access areas of the city in a disaster and people will be better able to evacuate. Fire and emergency vehicles need to get in and people need to get out. The Fire Department needs to be able to meet its goal of accessing all areas of the city in four minutes. 

Northeast Berkeley is particularly vulnerable during this time of year and is at risk of being isolated from city rescue efforts in the event of earthquakes and fires. March and April 2008, have been the driest months on record with high temperatures and low humidity. May 12 was the official beginning of the fire season. Since then, the frequent high winds and multitude of fires throughout California have increased the anxiety for those living in the hills of Berkeley. When it is calm in downtown Berkeley, it is often hot and dry with gusty winds in the hills posing a major fire danger. The fire season usually does not pick up until September and October yet this has been a spring and summer of Red Flag Warnings. The risk and condition of the telephone poles and wires are a particular concern for the area.  

Undegrounding wires and utilities will improve safety of life and property. In the event of an earthquake, poles may fall, wires may be yanked from the poles igniting fires wherever they land. Currently, poles are leaning, brittle, overloaded and risk fires from arching wires. Ivy growing up poles adds to the hazard as the ivy undermines the base of the pole which could result in falling. Added to the fire season, residents in the hills are extremely vulnerable half of the year. 

The city needs to engage the community and other commissions in the development of criteria for undergrounding and establish a city wide plan for implementation. The Disaster and Fire Commission is ready. The Transportation Department terminology of street terms—major, collector, local (all others) would be useful in creating criteria. There needs to be common terminology prioritizing access and evacuation until all streets are covered. 

As to cost, the mantra for many years from the City Council and city has been that there are insufficient or no funds for undergrounding the wires. Develop a strategic plan for the city; then money will follow. For starters, PG&E allocates funds (20A). Also, with the infrastructure needs of this country, the City of Berkeley needs to work with state and federal representatives to position itself for funding. Ashby Avenue and Tunnel Road are part of a highway system and should be eligible for Cal Tran funds. Other funding sources could include the university, transfer tax, telephone and cable companies. Pool financial resources to speed the process of undergrounding throughout the city. 

Seeking funds from Cal Tran to underground the wires on Ashby Avenue and Tunnel Road is long overdue. The ceiling of wires on Ashby Avenue is a blight to the community and a safety hazard. However, to ignore the other side of town and exclude Northeast Berkeley from safety improvements is wrong. Hearst, Euclid Avenue, Spruce and Grizzly Peak are collector streets used by emergency vehicles and those accessing Tilden Regional Park. Euclid Avenue and Grizzly Peak form a wedge by which streets east and west can be reached for access by fire engines and are primary streets for evacuation. Northeast Berkeley is part of Berkeley and though it lacks libraries, recreation centers, public health and senior citizen facilities, speed bumps, diverters and traffic calming circles, it pays taxes to all these services and traffic devices and should have access to financial resources dedicated to improved safety. 

The City of Berkeley needs an Underground Wiring Strategic Plan which prioritizes access and evacuation so that the Fire Department, can indeed, reach residents in four minutes. Northeast Berkeley must be included in that plan.  


Pamela Doolan is a community volunteer and long time Berkeley resident.