John Klein: Project CX3 – The Great Grand Avenue Dig of 2009

I know a lot of people are following the progress of Measure DD, but what is all that work in the middle of Grand Avenue? I did some checking and it turns out that PG&E is making really important infrastructure changes there. The name of the project is the “New Oakland C-X #2 115kV Underground Cable Project,” or “CX3″ for short. That is, three new electrical lines are being installed from 2nd & Castro Street near Jack London Square (sub-station C) to Grosvenor & Park Blvd. (sub-station X); this is where the name CX3 comes from. The new lines will carry 115,000 volts to sub-station X, which is a transmission and distribution sub-station.

Sub-Station X at Grosvenor and Park Blvd.

The route travels along Castro Street to MLK, then east along West Grand and Grand Avenue to MacArthur, and then to Park Blvd. The overall distance is 3.66 miles. The original cost estimate for CX3 was $40-$50 million, but it will probably go over that. It started in March 2009, although the El Embarcadero section between Grand and Lakeshore was done in 2008 so that it wouldn’t interfere with Measure DD work. The entire project is scheduled to be completed in September 2010.

The project was originally proposed by the California Independent Service Operators (CAISO) in late 2005 as one of seven critical infrastructure projects it had identified as vital to improving system reliability in California. These 2005 proposals came after a summer of rolling blackouts in southern California. CAISO is a non-profit corporation that is a consortium of power generators and transmission line owners. CAISO is organized under federal regulations which allow energy producers to team up to better allocate transmission space; match supply with demand; provide transparency in pricing and in the condition of the electrical grid; and to administer the generation and distribution of energy more efficiently, all by linking power plants and utilities under a federally-approved structure.

Sub-station C and 2nd and Castro Streets.

Back on the job, PG&E retained Black and Veatch (B&V) as the general contractor. B&V is an international engineering and construction firm with projects all over the world. An intrepid engineer could work for B&V in a wide variety of foreign countries, including Columbia and Afghanistan, if they are up for it.

PG&E and B&V usually don’t do the actual work for this type of project since neither is able to maintain local crews large enough for it. For this, Underground Construction Company, Inc. (UGC) is the subcontractor that was selected to install the new system. UGC is based in Benicia and specializes in projects like CX3 and can pull together a large, local crew. Most of the crews, trucks, and equipment you see are part of the UGC team. UGC has a great team. If you could say there are such things as “heroes” on jobs like CX3, they would be the UGC workers. They are all smart, focused, hard-working, and safe. These men and women dig, climb, pound, cut, drill, push, grind, twist, sweep, carry, sweat, and drive all day while, at the same time, exhibiting a level of team-work and cooperation that you’ll rarely see. They have to work like this because they are doing a difficult and dangerous job.

So, what are they doing? They are placing four 6-inch and two 4-inch diameter conduits along the entire length. The electrical wire goes inside the 6-inch conduit (one of the four is a spare). Fiber optic cables will run through the two 4-inch conduits. The fiber optics won’t include cable, DSL, or any direct service to the public. The fiber optics are for PG&E operations, especially for earthquake and disaster recovery and will allow PG&E to pinpoint line breaks quickly and precisely in the event of a major disruption.

Obviously, the main work is the trench down the middle of the street. Placing the new lines in the middle of the street is the best method of installation, otherwise it would all go overhead, which would be a visual nightmare, even though it would be way cheaper and easier to install. There is no minimum depth of placement for the cable and the only requirement is that the new electrical lines must be placed below all other existing utilities. There are tons of existing underground utilities all along the route including old electrical lines, gas lines, water lines of all sizes, and sewer lines. There are very few linear sections along the route without existing underground utilities. All this makes excavation of the trench and placement of conduit very slow. The trench in the picture, which is about seven feet deep, shows conduit running under a big brown water pipe.

Electrical wiring and fiber optic conduit

The conduit in the picture hasn’t yet been wrapped as a “duct package.” The final package will be about 30″ in diameter when wrapped in a lead-shielded rubber sheath. The lead in the sheath will confine any magnetism that might possibly occur. The sheath is also impregnated with heat sensor circuitry that will allow PG&E to monitor heat generating by the power flow along the entire line. Both the fiber optics and heat sensors are new technologies for PG&E within the last five years.

In some areas the soil is very wet and in others, engineers think the geology is unstable. Because PG&E must build the system to perform for many decades and even centuries, the conduit package is further re-enforced in the wet and unstable areas before it is buried. The re-enforcement consists of an additional sheath of one-inch thick rebars running parallel with the conduit package surrounded, as much as possible, by water-permeable filter cloth, all of which is buried in engineered gravel. The permeable cloth and gravel allow water to drain away from the conduit. When the extra reinforcement is used, the whole package is nearly three feet in diameter; approximately 30% of the 3.66-mile length of CX3 is prepared this way.

Once the conduit is installed and the reinforcement is complete, the trench is filled with a special “thermal concrete,” which is a type of concrete that is engineered to allow the heat produced by the electricity to dissipate properly. The original soil that was excavated out is disposed of at the Altamont landfill. The trench is then topped-off with new pavement at street level.

Generally, things seem to be going smoothly with the project although there were some difficulties threading the conduit package through a tangle of utilities that surround the BART tunnel beneath Telegraph and Grand. In fron of the senior center at Grand and Harrison, the soil was so wet and unstable that digging a trench wasn’t possible. A tunnel had to be bored down to a depth of 32 feet starting at Bay Street, then running past Harrison Street and up Grand across from Christ the Light Cathedral.

Grand Avenue near Harrison

There are about 100 people working on the project on any given day, I think. No one with PG&E, B&V, or UGC would talk about this so I counted every worker I saw at four different work areas along the project route on a typical day. At the same time, I counted 11 dump trucks, 14 pick-up trucks, 4 really big front-end loaders, 20 service vehicles (over-sized pick-up trucks with flatbeds and carrying racks), 6 Oakland police cruisers, 3 concrete trucks, 6 backhoes, five 16′-to-20′ long flatbed trucks, 2 really long flatbed trailers, 7 portable toilets, 2 large excavators on roller tracks, and 2 vans with trailers hitched to the back. I’m sure I missed a few people and pieces of equipment, but you get the idea.

For right now, UGC is placing the conduit without any wiring inside. B&V will come back in early 2010 and begin pulling the wire through the conduit. They will use access points at manholes and service areas, called “communication boxes,” that have been built into the system every 1,200 – 2,000 feet. The wire pull operation will not be as disruptive as the construction, but there will be large trucks with huge spools of wire on them parked in the road during that operation.

Workers on Grand Avenue near Perkins Street

The City of Oakland wanted CX3 finished before the 2009 holidays, but it looks like they didn’t quite make the deadline. Although Grand Ave. is nearly complete, the tunneling in fron of the senior center put that section behind schedule. The trenching and conduit installation on Castro Street is about 75% complete, it appears, so it looks like traffic disruptions shouldn’t be too bad.

In any case, there is still a substantial amount of work left tying the new lines into the substations at both ends. At sub-station C, an entire new section will be built in the lot next to the existing portion of the sub-station. Just up Castro Street from this sub-station at 3rd Street, a huge new underground communications box will be installed in a couple of weeks and will require three crances to place it into the hole now being prepared for it. At sub-station X on Park Blvd., another tunnel was needed between the street and the building to allow a new circuit breaker to be installed. This is not a circuit breaker like the one in your closet or garage, but rather is the size of a mid-size car.

So that is the story of the “dig” on Grand Ave. I thought it might be worth investigating CX3 and letting everybody know. I’d never seen any public information about it even though it’s such a big and important addition to Oakland. You can see more photos on Flickr.

18 thoughts on “John Klein: Project CX3 – The Great Grand Avenue Dig of 2009

  1. Karen Smulevitz

    Good explanation, John Klein. I was wondering about those huge trenches. Now could you please find out why PG&E is so far behind schedule on the MacArthur Blvd. undergrounding? They started a few years ago from the San Leandro border, and were supposed to have completed the project to 73rd Avenue by last year, even after extensions due to subcontractor problems.

  2. lounge lassie

    This is an awesome write-up – one of the best ones I’ve read in a long time. As an engineer, I find that a lot of the “background” research is often lacking or inaccurate – but you really did a terrific job and should be commended! And thank you for the info.

  3. jarichmond

    Thanks for writing this up; I’ve been wondering what was going on for a few weeks now since I accidentally got stuck in the traffic on Grand one day. It’s always good to hear about improvements to the infrastructure like that.

  4. SF2OAK

    I am curious about the seeming requirement for OPD officers at these road construction sites. OPD don’t seem to be doing much- what are they doing? Who pays for the officers?

  5. John Klein


    Black and Veatch told me that they requested OPD station officers at each work area. It’s because of all the traffic and pedestrians and the big potential for crime, injury, accidents, etc. More than once, OPD called me off or escorted me out work areas when I was taking photos. Workers told me that pedestrians are always trying to walk through the work areas. I guess B&V felt the need to have OPD on site so that the workers don’t have to handle security, or if there are security issues, OPD can handle immediately. There is also a lot of potential for traffic accidents, too.

    I assume that PG&E, as the customer, is paying for OPD, but that is only an assumption. I contacted the City of Oakland a couple of weeks ago trying to get in touch with the project manager but I never got a response. The PUC documents show Gregory Hunter as the contact person but he probably isn’t the real project manager. I just renewed my inquiry to the City about the employee that manages the project for the City.

  6. NearLake

    John said: “Most of the crews, trucks, and equipment you see are part of the UGC team. UGC has a great team. If you could say there are such things as “heroes” on jobs like CX3, they would be the UGC workers. They are all smart, focused, hard-working, and safe. These men and women dig, climb, pound, cut, drill, push, grind, twist, sweep, carry, sweat, and drive all day while, at the same time, exhibiting a level of team-work and cooperation that you’ll rarely see. They have to work like this because they are doing a difficult and dangerous job.”

    I recently moved into a place near Lake Merritt and have since been watching UGC work on Grand Ave. John’s description of UGC’s teams is spot on. Their workers are very focused and professional. Unlike some construction sites where you wonder if any progress is being made, I have seen a lot of progress along Grand Ave in the short time I’ve been here.

    Great write-up, John. Your background info helps the reader appreciate the complexity of the project versus viewing it as just a crew laying some new pipes in the street.

  7. Naomi Schiff

    Great article! I’d been wondering what I was encountering on my way to work every day! Thank you for unraveling the mystery. Not surprising that they found mud at Grand and Harrison. If you look at old maps, all of that was marsh, including where the Vets’ Memorial stands. When they were building the cathedral they were pumping water out of the excavation for about a year.

  8. Matthew Ranney

    Thanks for the great write up.

    I talked with an OPD officer about their conspicuous presence, and his explanation was that they wanted drivers to slow down. This job put workers very close to traffic.

  9. SF2OAK

    One can understand the need for worker safety but one has to wonder if this is the most cost effective/ public safety arrangement for the citizens of Oakland. Do we lose an officer on patrol because of this? It is disturbing to hear the they ran you Mr. Klein off what presumably is a public right of way – of course they can use the excuse of safety but for taking photos? How unsafe were you. And we still don’t know who is paying for this, but I thank you for the responses and for your write up Mr. Klein.

  10. Eric Fischer

    In addition to the old marsh at Grand and Harrison, Harrison is also about twice as wide as it once was, expanded on landfill over what used to be part of Lake Merritt.

  11. Ralph

    I have seen some people do some stupid, such as trying to cross in the middle or cross at closed crossing, along the construction site. At those times it helps to have a public safety officer. From what I have read the presence of police cars alone is enough to reduce reduce driver speed. So if worker safety is a primary concern and if reducing speeding increases safety conditions, then you be able to achieve the same effect with an unmanned car.

    Personally, I am cool with having the police presence. One of the few times, I know I have police coverage.

    In at least one state in the union, there has been a push to use non-police safety personnel.

  12. Art

    I don’t know what PG&E’s specific arrangement with OPD is, but I know in general for events or other activities that require added OPD presence, you pay hourly for their services, and in many cases (e.g., special events) it’s voluntary overtime for OPD officers who would otherwise be off-duty. This is obviously a bigger ongoing project, so they may have another arrangement—but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that the City is paying for it or that it’s taking officers away from other responsibilities. Would be curious to know, though!

  13. Robert

    SF, Construction sites are routinely restricted from general public access, even when they include part of the roadway. This is done for legitimate safety reasons, as anyone who has worked construction will tell you that it is more dangerous than just standing on the sidewalk. Without prior agreements, construction companies tend to be very diligent about the restrictions because of liability issues. If somebody trips over a piece of pipe on the site, the company could be held responsible if they had let people wander through their site without make a reasonable effort to prevent access. The presence of untrained personnel, without proper PPE, also increases the hazards for the construction personnel themselves.

    Art is likely correct about who is paying for this service, and it being voluntary overtime.

  14. Robert Zolly

    Anyone know why the CAL TRANS building on Grand near Broadway is still undergoing repairs to its steel beams that are uncovered on the lower floor…it sure looks like a typical government delayed project…what is happening and isn’t CAL TRANS embarrassed by the ugly looking facade?

  15. hayhehes

    Fantastic article. I leave in Adams Point and I have to navigate this mess every work day. Its good to finally know whats been going on.

  16. John Klein

    To update the CX3 story a little, PG&E et al installed a huge, underground concrete box yesterday at 3rd and Castro Street. I was there along with several media outlets, who published stories about it.

    Channel Two’s Tom Vacar submitted a report, (There’s a short delay before the video starts and you have to sit through an ad.) The Tribune has a story, too –

    It was pretty interesting to watch.