How should Oakland decide where to underground utilities?

I don’t suppose you guys have been following this whole undergrounding controversy in Piedmont?

I have more than enough on my plate trying to keep up with what’s going on in Oakland, so I have to admit, I don’t pay a ton of attention to what goes on in our wealthier neighboring cities where nobody lives. But a few months ago, as I was paging through a very large folder of feeds, a post in Piedmont Neighborhood News caught my eye. It began with a big, bold quote from their City Administrator from a recent Council meeting:

Such an extraordinary, such an unpleasant, such a difficult recommendation. The recommendation is mine and I am responsible for it.

How’s that for melodramatic? You understand why I had couldn’t help but click through and read the whole thing.

Anyway, so it turns out that this incredibly difficult decision that the City Administrator had to make was about whether or not Piedmont should spend one third of its general fund to subsidize the undergrounding of utility lines in front of 144 houses in the fancy part of Piedmont. No, I am not making that up. And yes, his recommendation was to go for it.

So ever since then, I have just not been able to get enough of this ridiculous controversy. Basically, what happened was that this neighborhood, “Piedmont Hills,” decided they wanted their power lines undergrounded. So they made an assessment district to pay for their undergrounding, and the project went out to bid. The bids that came back ranged from $1.5 million to $2.5 million. I am sure it will not surprise to learn that the $1.5 million bid was choosen.

So this company got to work on the undergrounding, and were shocked when they started digging and discovered that the ground there is actually rock. Um, yeah.

So then, this company is all “Oh, it’s going to cost another million dollars to dig through all this rock” and the people of Piedmont Hills were all like “Yeah, we don’t want to pay a million dollars” and went out and raised $30,000 instead. So the City Administrator was like well we have to finish it (PDF) one way or another. They would find the money from their General Fund reserve.

Reserve [ri-zurv]

OMG, I am so sorry!

I bet that last line totally confused the hell out of a lot of you Oaklanders out there. My bad. You see, a reserve is this neat-o thing that some cities have where they take some of the money they get and instead of spending it, they put it away somewhere else.

Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Go back and try reading it again slowly.

No, you don’t spend it on something else. You put it somewhere else.

No, not even if there’s something you really want to spend it on. You just put it away and let it sit there. Then, if something terrible happens, like, oh, I don’t know, if say revenues were to suddenly plummet or you unexpectedly had to bail out some beautification project in a ritzy neighborhood, then you would have money sitting there that you could use to deal with the problem. So you could take care of the issue without having to like, lay off half your park maintenance staff or whatever.

Think of it sort of like a savings account, but for the City. It sounds crazy, I know. But trust me when I say it actually is fairly common practice in other places.

Piedmont’s undergrounding problems

Anyway, so Piedmont had $3 million in their General Fund reserve. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Piedmont is super tiny, so it is actually quite a bit of money per person. Good for them.

Anyway, so back in December, the Council approved this emergency resolution to spend a third of their reserve to bail out this underground project. But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the project had even more problems (PDF) than they had realized in December, and to get it finished was going to cost another $1.15 million. Oops! People were seriously pissed.

Underground Utilities in Oakland

I am sure you are all wondering right about now why on earth I am talking about Piedmont’s undergrounding controversy. Mostly, because I find the story pretty entertaining (in a oh-god-government-is-so-depressing way, of course), and figured that since I was writing about undergrounding anyway, it would be fun to mention it.

And why am I writing about undergrounding at all, you ask? Why, because the Public Works Committee was talking about it earlier this week, of course.

You guys know what underground is, right? It’s when you take the power lines and other wires on poles in a neighborhood and you put them underground. We had underground utilities in the town where I went to high school. It was nice. Power lines are really unsightly. Also, they get knocked down in storms and your power goes out, and having your power out sucks. Plus, downed electrical lines are like, you know, extremely dangerous and a fire hazard.

First Come, First Served

So, if neighborhoods in Oakland want their utilities undergrounded, the way it happens is they ask they City for undergrounding and then they get on a list. Then the wait. Usually for a very long time. Then, once they get to the top of the list, the City goes and looks to see if that neighborhood meets one of the four eligibility requirements set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for undergrounding. (If you don’t meet any of the criteria, you can still have undergrounding if you really want it, but you have to pay for it yourself. You can’t use money from this undergrounding fund that we get from PG&E). Anyway, the CPUC’s eligibility requirements are as follows:

  • heavy overhead electric facilities

  • heavy volume of auto and pedestrian traffic

  • civic area or public recreation area

  • arterial street or major collector

There are 23 neighborhoods on the list right now. 23 probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but undergrounding is expensive. Most of it gets paid for out of this pot of undergrounding money we get from PG&E every year, but also the property owners in the neighborhood pay some too. Right now we get like $3.6 million a year from PG&E, and for the neighborhoods that get the undergrounding, the cost to the property owners is like $15,000 each. Based on the current funding, all the neighborhoods on the list will get their utilities undergrounded within the next 40 years.

We’ve been doing it that way since 1968.

Priorities for Undergrounding

So, the City Council’s Public Works Committee got a report about this undergrounding list (PDF) back in September, and they were like “Maybe just giving this to whoever asked first isn’t the smartest way to do it. Maybe we should have, like, criteria or something to decide who gets undergrounding.” So they asked staff to come back with another report about how other cities decide what neighborhoods get undergrounding, and that happened on Tuesday.

As it turns out, like, nobody else makes this decision based on who asked first. Crazy, I know.

Instead, they look at factors like (PDF):

  • Whether the area is has other projects going on, like major street construction

  • Whether there is a safety issue related to the overhead wires

  • Whether the undergrounding would be near major public facilities (schools, parks, rec centers, commercial corridors, etc.)

  • Cost/benefit analysis of doing undergrounding in the area

  • Whether the undergrounding would happen on a major street

Seems reasonable, right? After all, if it’s going to take 40 years before we get all these projects done, it seems logical to do them in some sort of, you know, rational order, based on where undergrounding is more needed.

So, there weren’t very many speakers on this on Tuesday, but the ones who did show up said that whether overhead utilities is a safety issue should be the number one criteria. The meeting in September had more speakers, and they were also really adamant that safety issues should be the top criteria.

Here’s former Oakland City Councilmember Dick Spees making the case for safety at that meeting back in September:

It’s kind of hard to argue with. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks said she was supportive of safety as a criteria, but made sure to note that overhead utilities are not a safety issue exclusively in the hills. She is unhappy with the fact that most of the undergrounding gets done in ritzy neighborhoods.

District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan said it wasn’t quite so simple as all that, noting that the next neighborhood on the current list is in her District, and that they really really want their undergrounding, and that it isn’t fair for them if we just go and change the rules after they have been waiting for like 30 years and if we do they will get really angry.

I definitely feel bad for people who have been waiting a long time for something and don’t get it. But what’s more important? Being fair? Or a fire? Fair? Fire? Fair? Fire? Kinda seems like a no brainer to me.

You can watch the whole discussion here:

If you have some time, you should watch it. It’s interesting. I’ll try to upload the September discussion later.

What do you think?

The report on Tuesday was just an information item, so nothing happened then. But the Committee did schedule the undergrounding issue to come back on May 11th, this time as an action item. That means they might actually adopt new criteria, not just talk about maybe doing it. If you have feelings about what the criteria should be, you should contact them about it.

The contact information for the Public Works Committee is as follows:

11 thoughts on “How should Oakland decide where to underground utilities?

  1. Andy K

    The high bidder would have been just as shocked about the rock. These types of projects are (almost) always given to the low bidder. As such, the low bidder can only bid on what is shown on the plans, and in the contract documents. Should the low bidder have assumed 10% rock excavation, or 30% or some other percentage? What if they assumed 50% rock, priced their bid appropriately, and then only hit 10% rock? Would they give the money back, or pocket the wind fall?

    But on the over all point, as a hills resident, fire safety is of course important to me, and under grounding does accomplish this. Do the costs of under grounding equal the benefit of fire prevention? Or could these $ be better spent on trimming etc?

    Under grounding generally should be done in concurrence with other beautification/street improvement projects. When they do BRT, they should look at under grounding at the same time.

  2. Jeffrey W. Baker

    Those hill dwellers take their undergrounding seriously. There’s even a park near Montclair memorializing the efforts of someone who organized the local undergrounding project. I believe the name is Brett, and the park is at the corner of Pershing Dr and Marsh Pl.

    In fact, now that I googled for it, I see that Jean Quan puts down the establishment of tiny Brett Park as one of her accomplishments on the city council.

  3. len raphael

    Undgrounding for most of Oakland will have to wait till after the big one. But to see what a difference it makes in a flatland neighborhood, go to Ailleen Street just below Telegraph. That little section of North Oakland was built 60 or so years ago with the utilities underground. Gives it the open feeling of of Upper Rockridge. (oops not pc, that means evil low density single family housing.)

    -len raphael

  4. Tim Rood

    @Aaron – Piedmont gets much, MUCH fancier as you move uphill. The Piedmont Avenue/Beach School neighborhood and the houses on Grand Avenue are fairly modest, despite their price tags, compared to the mansions with swimmin’ pools on acre+ lots up on Sea View and King Street.,%20CA has a fun mapping tool you can use to see the relative incomes and housing costs for different areas.

  5. matt

    I think safety first makes a lot of sense as long as safety criteria takes neighborhood density into account. If a street, or streets in the case of an earthquake are obstructed by fallen lines in highly populated neighborhoods it’s simply a danger to more people than up in the hills. When was the last time a massive wild fire was the result of downed power line in the hills? The 1991 Firestorm was the result of a power tool, fire department fumbles and perfect weather/fuel conditions. Anywho, yet again density counts (sorry Len).

    Or how about the oldest parts of the city first? Living in one of the first neighborhoods in Oakland that criteria suits me just fine :-)

  6. len raphael

    Matt, i’m 100% with you that density interacts with public safety in a negative way.

    More people crammed together = you need more firefighting capacity, more cops, better infrastructure. eyes on the ground or looking down from those high rises are gonna be wide open in fear when the big one hits, the lines go own and ignite fires or simply the 80 year old water mains break and there’s no pressure.

    similar deal with street crime. you might get a bunch more people shooting videos on their phones, but not too many of them will intervene to stop a mugging. (except maybe for Max)

    when you throw low income housing in the high density mix, lol if you haven’t fixed the other problems around here. i forgot. all those lattes, chicken sandwiches, and manicures bought by new residents will generate scillions of bucks in biz and sales tax.


  7. len raphael

    Matt, wouldn’t think comparing crime in high density urban japan to urban america would be meaningful. unless you compared crime in sections of japan cities that had high diversity of culture, income, and high turnover/geographic mobility.

    When one reads about the recycling old man/woman street captains who turn you over to the authorities if you violate strict recycling laws, it doesn’t seem like a place you could mug someone and get away with it.

    Maybe some of the others here who have lived in Japan can discuss differences in society attitude and incidence of crime.

    Also wouldn’t compare the low to moderate income high rises of Hong Kong to similar high rises in USA. What little I know about HK high rises, is that many of them are more like villages with multi generational extended families living in the same building, sometimes not even having to leave the building for most ocassions other than to work or go to parks.

    Singapore? is that the place they give public lashes for grafitti or some such?

    More relevant comparison would be the UK low to moderate income council medium density attached houses converted to kind of condos. I’d prefer to live in a HK skyscraper.

    In the USA high density poor people housing lost it’s support years ago. thought merely spread out poor people who have high incidence of crime, seems to just spread the crime around.

    Curious what the crime stats are for the area around Lake Merrit with a high proportion of multi cultural diverse income multi unit buildings compared to say Fruitvale district. which might be less diverse though lower median income.

    (then the question is do higher income areas attract more crime of certain types)

    -len raphael

  8. matt

    Len, thank you for your assessment. Yes, the Japanese have learned how to live close together in a civil manner just like the citizens of Oakland will learn to do as well.

  9. david vartanoff

    with the caveat that I have worked on undergrounding occasionally, I LIKE overhead wires. I mean what compares with thousands of birds having a rest in mid migration on the wires at say Ashby & Tele? Yes, downed wires can be dangerous, but frankly there are many worse dangers out there on a statistical basis. The 1991 Oakland Hills fire IIRC was caused by some sort of backyard barbecue, bot a powerline. And fire suppression was hindered by water and radio issues. As a further note, last I looked, there was some wording in the contractss giving exclusive rights to these pipes on our properties to our very dear and trustworthy friends PG&E, AT&T, and Comcast. Not my preference.