Op-ed: Preserve public safety — Do not tie undergrounding utilities to disaster preparedness

Disaster preparedness and undergrounding utilities have become campaign issues in the District 6 Council race because the incumbent, Susan Wengraf, put “Improving Public Safety” at the top of her list of accomplishments and said she improved public safety because she “initiated a plan to underground all utilities in Berkeley to make streets safe for evacuation”. However, there is no existing plan for undergrounding all utilities in Berkeley, nor will undergrounding all utilities in Berkeley make streets safe for evacuation in case of a city-wide disaster.

The closest thing I have found to a “plan to underground all utilities in Berkeley” is a report by Harris & Associates, Berkeley’s undergrounding consultant, dated July 22, 2016. The cover letter of the report describes the document not as a plan but as, “...a baseline…the starting point for the future studies and developing an undergrounding program with the goal of undergrounding all of the overhead utilities in the City of Berkeley.” [Emphasis added.]

Harris reports that new subsidized projects will be available in 2025 once PG&E fully recovers its unreimbursed costs for completed projects. The next district then can be established. Harris states, “From the study we identified that there are approximately 13.1 miles of arterial and 24.8 miles of collector streets remaining to be undergrounded. The estimated cost of undergrounding the total 37.9 miles is $134,800,000.” Clearly, undergrounding the 37.9 miles of arterial and collector streets spread across the city will require the creation and prioritization of logically configured underground districts. Harris estimates that formation of the selected district will take one year. We know this can start no earlier than 2025.

Harris defines the step after district formation as “allocation” of project funds by PG&E and notes that the time to complete allocation varies depending on the city’s account balance, project costs, and the amount PG&E allocates annually to Berkeley.

To get a feel for how this phase of the project might work, assume the formation of ten districts of equal dimension and costs from the 37.9 miles at a cost of $134,800,000. Per Harris’ estimate, the first of these hypothetical ten districts would cost $13,480,000. At the reported yearly allocation rate of $500,000, the funds necessary to underground the hypothetical district would be accumulated in 27 years. At that point, the project could be built, a process Harris estimates will take another four years. This means that the hypothetical 100% PG&E-funded project formed in 2025 will be completed sometime between 2050 and 2060. One down, nine to go.

San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office provides a sanity check for this hypothetical case. Its 2015 report describes the aftermath of San Francisco’s 1996-2006 initiative to underground 45.8 miles of overhead wires, stating, “The 1996-2006 total program costs of $173,167,804 have still not been fully recovered by PG&E and will require approximately $53.8 million in San Francisco’s future annual Tariff Rule 20A allocations before the City can undertake additional undergrounding projects using Rule 20A funds. Given the City’s current annual Rule 20A allocation amount of approximately $3.1 million, it will take approximately 17.3 years to repay the 1996 undergrounding program costs with annual Rule 20A allocations.” [Emphasis added.]

Even if all arterials and collectors streets could be undergrounded instantly, it still would be incorrect and extremely risky to assume that the undergrounded utilities “make streets safe for evacuation”. Undergrounding would eliminate the risk of downed electrical poles and wires but does nothing to eliminate impediments to safe evacuation including fire, fallen trees, fissures caused by earthquakes, ruptured gas lines, broken water mains, emergency vehicles, cars driven by panicked drivers attempting to navigate narrow roads, pedestrians, wounded people or animals, debris, darkness, and all manner of other obstacles could impede safe and orderly evacuation in a fully undergrounded area. All disaster evacuation plans should consider how to deal with any such conditions.

The time for disaster preparedness is now. Utilities will be undergrounded at some unknown point in the future. Our best course of action for disaster preparedness including evacuation preparedness is to assume the worst and create and test plans for dealing with those worst-case scenarios. This approach affords us the best chance for good outcomes in case of calamitous events.

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Patricia Mapps has been a District 6 resident for decades. A computer systems engineer, she has created, refined and regularly tested mainframe computer and network systems disaster recovery plans for a regional bank and for a beverage company headquartered in Florida. Mapps also spearheaded a decades-long effort to have the utilities in her neighborhood undergrounded. Poles and wires serving 211 parcels were removed in Oct. 2010.