Berkeley council to consider undergrounding utility wires

Utility wires at Grant and Bancroft. The City Council will vote on a proposal to look into moving Berkeley's wires underground. Photo: Google Maps
Utility wires at Grant and Bancroft. The City Council will vote on a proposal to look into moving Berkeley’s wires underground. Photo: Google Maps

UPDATE, July 13: Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who originally brought the undergrounding item to council, will recommend at this week’s meeting that the item be held over until September. “I originally brought this item forward and I feel that it is an extremely important issue. Fearing that it will be discussed at 1:30 a.m., I would prefer to delay it to another time,” she told Berkeleyside. “It deserves a good vetting  and discussion.” The commissions involved in the issue are in agreement with her, she added. The item is currenly listed as 57th on a 62-item long agenda. The last council meeting, June 30, ran until 1:30 a.m.

ORIGINAL STORY: Three city commissions have asked the Berkeley City Council to approve the creation of a plan to underground the city’s electrical wires, and council is set to consider the issue Tuesday night.

The report, submitted by Margo Schueler, Sofia Zander and Bob Flasher (chairs of the Public Works, Transportation and Disaster and Fire Safety commissions), names disaster preparedness and community feedback as the core reasons for undergrounding the wires.

“Above ground, aerial utility wires and equipment represent a significant risk to the community,” the authors wrote. “When severed, they can cause fires and interrupt the access of emergency vehicles.”


The report lists other benefits of moving wiring underground, such as more reliable utilities, opportunities for street emergency preparedness evaluations and better aesthetics, all of which work toward improving public safety and the city’s “resilience.”

The cost of the project has not been determined, but creating a plan for the process, and determining the budget, would cost $12,000 to $16,000 in staff time, according to a companion report.

The main report references San Diego’s underground plan several times, saying that citizens at Public Works Commission meetings expressed their desire for a long-term undergrounding plan similar to San Diego’s. The process can be long and costly, however. Although San Diego has been undergrounding lines since 1970, approximately 1,000 miles of overhead lines remain to be addressed, according to the city’s website. The program sets San Diego back approximately $54 million a year. It is estimated that nearly all residential areas will be completed within the next 54 years.

(For reference, Berkeley is approximately 18 square miles, while San Diego spans 372.)

The report proposes three phases of planning: first, program development, which includes gathering information and public input, setting priorities and preparing a budget and scope for the program; next, creation of a comprehensive funding plan, which would look into specific funding sources; and finally, implementation of the program.


Durations of the first two phases are nine and 15 months, respectively, and the third phase is “to be determined.”

While a few residential streets in Berkeley have had overhead lines undergrounded, these were mostly privately funded. Overhead cables on the stretch of Gayley Road that runs in front of Cal Memorial Stadium were undergrounded prior to 2012 as part of the stadium’s rebuild, paid for by UC Berkeley.

This week, Piedmont settled a 2011 lawsuit related to undergrounding utility wires in the Piedmont Hills area. The suit alleged that two engineering firms working on the undergrounding provided inaccurate information regarding the scope of the project, which resulted in cost overruns and, ultimately, a controversial $2.4 million bailout by the city to finish the job.

Council is slated to vote on whether to approve the work plan, as suggested by the staff report, at its meeting Tuesday, July 14, at 7 p.m. at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

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Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.