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Talk of undergrounding San Diego' powerlines is grandiose

What about side streets, what about Linda VIsta?

The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile.
The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile.

Burying California's powerlines is one thing; San Diego's version is something else. The city wants to underground the wires on every street, and while it's a lofty goal, residents have been asking for decades when it's coming to their home.

The environment committee last week gave unanimous approval to a new memorandum of understanding between the city and San Diego Gas & Electric for undergrounding powerlines, which they say will speed things up.

"Our program was able to complete 8.7 miles of undergrounding in 2021."

"We're on the right track," said councilmember Joe LaCava. "While you hear of the mayor's sexy streets," he describes "no ugly boxes" as a vision the city has been working on, following a rash of poorly-placed utility equipment in older neighborhoods, along narrow streets and sidewalks. (See undergrounding map here.)

One such neighborhood is Linda Vista, which councilmember Raul Campillo said appears to have been left out of the undergrounding plans altogether.

"One thing that was shocking and disheartening to me is that Linda Vista had no projects in development, design or construction."

Since 2002, San Diegans have been paying a 3.53 percent rate surcharge on their electric bill to help expedite the undergrounding.

In 2021, it appears only $172,000 was expended in his District 7, Campillo said; about one percent of the $16.8 million dollars spent.

In addition to aging infrastructure, "they are situated right above Tecolote Canyon," adding to wildfire risks.

According to Linda Vista's community plan, there are high voltage transmission and distribution lines running through Tecolote Canyon and along Friars Road.

The community's highest priorities for undergrounding are listed as Ulric Street, Comstock Street, Genesee Avenue, Morena Boulevard, and West Morena Boulevard. They also want help from SDG&E to attain "visual relief" from the Gaines Street Substation.

Typically, all overhead distribution lines in a given street are undergrounded together, the effort funded by utility companies and/or by assessment district, in which property owners pay.

Campillo said the state's fire threat district tool misses many residential areas that have been impacted by fires. In District 7, "the tool encompasses all of Mission Trails Regional Park but practically none of the adjacent homes where the undergrounding is going to take place," he said.

"Fundamentally, the communities themselves seem to be left out," if we simply rely on the high fire threat district tool alone. People want to know when this is happening, he said. They know it's going to help with safety and weather-related outages.

He asked that the committee tuck into the memorandum changes related to high risk fire areas and outreach that would include council district offices, to assist the city's older, poorer communities.

One reason given for the program's delay was the transition to a new franchise agreement with SDG&E, approved last summer.

"We are in a unique historic place where a 50-year franchise agreement has ended and a new one is beginning," said Gene Matter, the city's assistant director of transportation & storm water.

Despite the slowdown, "our program was able to complete 8.7 miles of undergrounding in 2021."

The new agreement gives the city more oversight, allows joint projects, and includes a citizen's advisory group for the franchise that includes undergrounding.

Every neighborhood with overhead lines is included in a master plan, that was overhauled in 2018. Criteria for selecting sites was included, and the council must approve each project, at which point it's allocated. Design and construction doesn't start until it comes back to council for approval by a noticed public hearing to create the underground distrct.

"We only receive enough funds to support about 10 miles of construction per year," Matter said.

In addition to local surcharge funding, the city taps funds through the state's rule 20A, which applies to utility providers across California. San Diego's surcharge was established so entire neighborhoods outside rule 20a boundaries can also be undergrounded.

Matter said the fund balance was $171 million at the start of 2021. The city receives the money from SDG&E as franchse revenue and can only use it for undergrounding.

San Diego has 93 miles of planned projects left that meet the state's criteria for using rule 20a funds, such as being on a major street or scenic area.

Poles down side streets don't qualify.

SDG&E manages the money, and allocates a budget, known as work credits, for each city. San Diego has been receiving $15-20 million dollars in work credits annually. "Our work credit balance at the start of 2021 was about $105 million dollars."

Currently, he said, the state is revising rule 20A, and has tentatively stopped issuing work credits, which has put several projects on hold. There are 28 projects in construction, expected to have enough work credits to finish. Nineteen others are ready to take to district councils to create new undergrounding districts once the MOU is adopted.

The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile and individual projects typically take three years to complete. Since 1967, the program has only undergrounded 2,500 miles of line, out of a total of 160,000 miles.

Councilmember Campbell praised the work of the public-private partnership, saying "it should serve as model for everything we do. For 50 years, SDG&E and the city have been working block by block, street by street, to underground our powerlines."

But her District 2 has waited decades, and like others she was hoping for a timeline to finish the work.

"Those blocks lucky enough to have the money allocated already - many are still years away from the next phase. So from Pacific Beach to Clairemont, Pt. Loma to to Linda Vista, many of my constituents are beyond frustrated with this seemingly endless process."

According to the report, 999 miles remain. Matter explained the math. "If we're funded to do 10 miles per year and there's about 1,000 miles - if we can stay on that current pace of receiving $60-80 million per year, and the pace is still $6-8 million per mile - there's still quite a bit of work," he said.

"It could take 100 years."

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The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile.
The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile.

Burying California's powerlines is one thing; San Diego's version is something else. The city wants to underground the wires on every street, and while it's a lofty goal, residents have been asking for decades when it's coming to their home.

The environment committee last week gave unanimous approval to a new memorandum of understanding between the city and San Diego Gas & Electric for undergrounding powerlines, which they say will speed things up.

"Our program was able to complete 8.7 miles of undergrounding in 2021."

"We're on the right track," said councilmember Joe LaCava. "While you hear of the mayor's sexy streets," he describes "no ugly boxes" as a vision the city has been working on, following a rash of poorly-placed utility equipment in older neighborhoods, along narrow streets and sidewalks. (See undergrounding map here.)

One such neighborhood is Linda Vista, which councilmember Raul Campillo said appears to have been left out of the undergrounding plans altogether.

"One thing that was shocking and disheartening to me is that Linda Vista had no projects in development, design or construction."

Since 2002, San Diegans have been paying a 3.53 percent rate surcharge on their electric bill to help expedite the undergrounding.

In 2021, it appears only $172,000 was expended in his District 7, Campillo said; about one percent of the $16.8 million dollars spent.

In addition to aging infrastructure, "they are situated right above Tecolote Canyon," adding to wildfire risks.

According to Linda Vista's community plan, there are high voltage transmission and distribution lines running through Tecolote Canyon and along Friars Road.

The community's highest priorities for undergrounding are listed as Ulric Street, Comstock Street, Genesee Avenue, Morena Boulevard, and West Morena Boulevard. They also want help from SDG&E to attain "visual relief" from the Gaines Street Substation.

Typically, all overhead distribution lines in a given street are undergrounded together, the effort funded by utility companies and/or by assessment district, in which property owners pay.

Campillo said the state's fire threat district tool misses many residential areas that have been impacted by fires. In District 7, "the tool encompasses all of Mission Trails Regional Park but practically none of the adjacent homes where the undergrounding is going to take place," he said.

"Fundamentally, the communities themselves seem to be left out," if we simply rely on the high fire threat district tool alone. People want to know when this is happening, he said. They know it's going to help with safety and weather-related outages.

He asked that the committee tuck into the memorandum changes related to high risk fire areas and outreach that would include council district offices, to assist the city's older, poorer communities.

One reason given for the program's delay was the transition to a new franchise agreement with SDG&E, approved last summer.

"We are in a unique historic place where a 50-year franchise agreement has ended and a new one is beginning," said Gene Matter, the city's assistant director of transportation & storm water.

Despite the slowdown, "our program was able to complete 8.7 miles of undergrounding in 2021."

The new agreement gives the city more oversight, allows joint projects, and includes a citizen's advisory group for the franchise that includes undergrounding.

Every neighborhood with overhead lines is included in a master plan, that was overhauled in 2018. Criteria for selecting sites was included, and the council must approve each project, at which point it's allocated. Design and construction doesn't start until it comes back to council for approval by a noticed public hearing to create the underground distrct.

"We only receive enough funds to support about 10 miles of construction per year," Matter said.

In addition to local surcharge funding, the city taps funds through the state's rule 20A, which applies to utility providers across California. San Diego's surcharge was established so entire neighborhoods outside rule 20a boundaries can also be undergrounded.

Matter said the fund balance was $171 million at the start of 2021. The city receives the money from SDG&E as franchse revenue and can only use it for undergrounding.

San Diego has 93 miles of planned projects left that meet the state's criteria for using rule 20a funds, such as being on a major street or scenic area.

Poles down side streets don't qualify.

SDG&E manages the money, and allocates a budget, known as work credits, for each city. San Diego has been receiving $15-20 million dollars in work credits annually. "Our work credit balance at the start of 2021 was about $105 million dollars."

Currently, he said, the state is revising rule 20A, and has tentatively stopped issuing work credits, which has put several projects on hold. There are 28 projects in construction, expected to have enough work credits to finish. Nineteen others are ready to take to district councils to create new undergrounding districts once the MOU is adopted.

The state estimates that undergrounding costs about $1 million per mile and individual projects typically take three years to complete. Since 1967, the program has only undergrounded 2,500 miles of line, out of a total of 160,000 miles.

Councilmember Campbell praised the work of the public-private partnership, saying "it should serve as model for everything we do. For 50 years, SDG&E and the city have been working block by block, street by street, to underground our powerlines."

But her District 2 has waited decades, and like others she was hoping for a timeline to finish the work.

"Those blocks lucky enough to have the money allocated already - many are still years away from the next phase. So from Pacific Beach to Clairemont, Pt. Loma to to Linda Vista, many of my constituents are beyond frustrated with this seemingly endless process."

According to the report, 999 miles remain. Matter explained the math. "If we're funded to do 10 miles per year and there's about 1,000 miles - if we can stay on that current pace of receiving $60-80 million per year, and the pace is still $6-8 million per mile - there's still quite a bit of work," he said.

"It could take 100 years."

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