SF to study how to speed up underground utility installations 

Tired of seeing utility poles and electrical wiring besmirching San Francisco's beauty? Have patience, for it could take more than 600 years before they're fully placed underground.

That's the latest estimate for how much time would be needed for The City to make the remaining 470 miles of its above-ground utility lines subterranean, according to the City Controller's Office. And the cost estimate is $3.6 billion, an estimated $7.56 million per mile. At one time, there were 990 miles of utility lines across San Francisco.

In response to the centurieslong prediction, Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset, is calling on The City to figure out how to speed up the utility undergrounding process.

"I just want to get the ball rolling so we can achieve this in under 600 years," Tang said. "To me, this is not just an aesthetics issue, it's really about safety."

The push comes as more than 700 signatures have been added to an online petition as of Friday afternoon calling on Mayor Ed Lee to complete the undergrounding.

"San Francisco's overhead utility wires are an urban blight and degrade our city," the petition says.

While San Francisco is a city that prides itself on innovation and cutting-edge urban planning, it has fallen behind in efforts to install subterranean utility wires, despite having established a task force that came up with recommendations to do just that in 2007.

Under the state's Rule 20A Undergrounding Program, municipalities are entitled to a share of an electrical tariff that is used to pay for PG&E to perform underground installations. The challenge for San Francisco, which receives $3 million in such revenues annually, is that it won't see any additional 20A funds that could pay for new undergrounding work until 2031, city officials say.

"Unfortunately, there was a previous undergrounding project that occurred between 1998 and 2009 that would have completed about 50 miles," Tang said. "But that went over budget. As a result our city had to mortgage our Rule 20A allotment."

Under state law, property owners could self-assess themselves to pay for the work, but with the current estimates Tang called it "an extreme burden for property owners."

On Friday, the Local Agency Formation Commission, on which members of the Board of Supervisors serve, voted to study how to speed up the undergrounding at Tang's request. It will examine funding sources in addition to the use of tax revenue, general obligation bonds or a utility users tax, which were analyzed by the City Controller's Office.

The study will also analyze installing fiber optic cables at the same time as the underground projects, which officials say could help bridge the digital divide and support a faster Internet service for businesses.

Supervisor London Breed, who along with other supervisors supported the effort, said, "It just looks like a mess, the wires crossing all over the place. It's pretty unbelievable that we have not moved in a direction of looking at how we can do this more all over The City."

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