Opinion: Berkeley needs an independent body to plan and prioritize its capital investments

The push to underground utilities – which could cost $500 million – is an example of how politics trumps practicality. Many studies show undergrounding does not help emergency response.

Over the last several years, a significant part of the pollical discussion of disaster preparedness policies has been focused on the undergrounding of electrical utilities. Unfortunately, the assumption that undergrounding utilities is an effective investment for improving emergency response and evacuation post-earthquake is false.

This is not just my conclusion but is also supported by experts in the field. According to numerous reports and studies (outlines at the bottom):

  • Undergrounding actually degraded emergency response overall since restoration of power was delayed by months by the relative difficulty of restoring underground systems.
  • The overall conclusion was that the investment in undergrounding had a massive negative return. It was a significant diversion of funds from much superior investments in seismic hardening.

As for the effectiveness of undergrounding utilities for other disasters, a little common sense will tell you that the most cost-effective method to improve both ingress and egress to fire-affected areas in Berkeley in the event of wildfire is to systematically widen narrow hills streets.

By the way, downed power lines in past earthquakes have not once been a significant problem. But if you want to contradict both experience and the engineering literature on this issue, then the most cost-effective thing to do is to spend a few million dollars (say perhaps 5) on upgrading to more robust utility poles and double insulated power lines. Of course, if you insist, you can spend at least $500 million to fully underground Berkeley. Or, if you are cheap, you can opt to spend only $150 million to underground just the arterial and collector streets. Note that this will do nothing really to improve emergency access or evacuation but at least it will soothe some unquiet anxieties.

You might also want to ask the city why it disbanded the national award-winning Seismic Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) just as it was addressing the issue of emergency evacuation. This was way back in 1995 or so. Full disclosure: I was a founder of the seismic panel.

And this brings us to the real problem facing Berkeley in this specific area of investing in capital programs, including disaster preparedness programs. There is no institutional mechanism (now that the STAP was killed) to objectively support optimal capital investment. There is not a group to objectively evaluate and champion innovation and transfer of best practices in municipal programs.

The result is that various superficially plausible ideas, like undergrounding, are high-jacked for political purposes and used to mobilize political support. Big pots of money draw various furious advocates for pet projects, which are then advanced without any mechanism to separate engineering/investment truth from selfish political advocacy.

The result in the past has been poor investment decisions. Now that the city has exhausted the approach of mining the public’s fear of seismic risk (a very legitimate fear, by the way) Berkeley has now turned to a new approach i.e. capital improvement with a vision (say 2050). The result was Measure T1 for $100 million. And now we have an endless parade of advocates for the money – senior centers, parks, streets, undergrounding, etc. I am not saying these are not needed program investments in general, I am saying that the vulnerable public does not have a reliable and objective and independent mechanism to plan and prioritize the massive capital investments it faces. The result will be that three power centers will control the result – city staff, selfishly motivated special interests, and political ideologues. The result will not be pretty. As it was not pretty in the past.

For more information see the article titled “Experts: Burying Power Lines in California a Costly Solution,” in the November 4/11 issue of Engineering News Record.  For another example supporting this view, consider both the Goldman School reports on the cost-effectiveness of undergrounding which reaches the same conclusion. These reports are available in a 2018 report Berkeley prepared on undergrounding.

Further, a little research time using a search engine will lead you to several reports on the overall effectiveness of undergrounding for seismic hardening in general. I would recommend that you look at the reported experience of Christchurch, New Zealand on the effectiveness of undergrounding utilities. Christchurch made a massive investment in totally undergrounding the city just prior to the massive 2011 earthquake.

Robert Krumme is a structural engineer and researcher specializing in aseismic design, founder of the award-winning Seismic Technical Advisory Panel, and former member of various Berkeley Commissions, including the public works commission.