Public Comment

Underground Berkeley Utility Wires for a Safer City

By Pamela Doolan
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:08:00 AM

Since the installation of overhead wires for technology and cable television, the old telephone poles of Berkeley are heavily overloaded causing a public safety hazard and visible blight. The city of Berkeley needs to join the 21st century and countless other California communities up and down the state by putting utility wires throughout the entire city underground. 

The drought of recent years has resulted in wildfires earlier in the year. It is only May and Santa Barbara’s recent wildfires are of major concern to anyone living near open space and vegetation. Berkeley is particularly vulnerable given its proximity to Tilden Regional Park. Those living in the hills of Berkeley are well aware of the history of firestorms in Berkeley that have taken life and property. Berkeley’s city government needs to be proactive in improving the safety of our city by correcting conditions that contribute to wildfires. Overhead wires and old, brittle, learning poles overgrown with ivy, can cause fires and destruction. 

Since the city of Berkeley needs to decide on the use of future PG&E 20A public monies for underground wiring, this is a good time to develop a plan that improves on past practices. Moving away from a street by street petition process and moving to a thought out plan based on safety, access and evacuation, better serves all of Berkeley. 

The next plan for undergrounding should prioritize emergency access and evacuation routes rather than arterial routes (as recommended by a subcommittee of the Public Works Commission). All arterial routes may be evacuation routes but not all emergency evacuation routes are arterial routes. 

Focusing on emergency access and evacuation routes allows for a more equitable use of underground funds and recognizes that these streets will become high traffic exit routes in a disaster. Furthermore, arterial routes tend to be closer to the downtown area. Should a major arterial route, such as University Avenue, be closed, parallel streets can be used to divert traffic. This is not the case in other parts of Berkeley where emergency vehicles are dependent often on a single road to access many other areas. For example, fire engines use Euclid Avenue to reach smaller, curved roads east and west of it. Should Euclid Avenue be blocked by a fallen telephone pole, there are no paralleling roads to quickly access the side streets. Euclid Avenue forms a wedge with Grizzly Peak to reach all streets interior and those streets to the west of it. Spruce is too far downhill to reach streets east of Euclid Avenue. Spruce is parallel to Arlington Avenue with many interior streets needing access, as well. Emergency access routes throughout Berkeley must be clear of downed poles and be available for access and evacuation in a disaster. It is not enough to protect the core of the city; the neighborhoods must also be included in planning for future public funding (PG&E 20A). Focus on access and evacuation and a plan will evolve that protects the entire city. 

Policy makers need to drive around the neighborhoods to see the condition of wires and poles. They are a visual blight and a danger to us all. Walk across the university and note that it has undergrounding throughout the campus. It is more beautiful to look up at an unobstructed sky and it is also safer. The residents of Berkeley deserve and would welcome underground wiring that is inclusive of the entire city. 

Funding is a separate issue. (a) Berkeley should work with PG&E to increase its allocation for undergrounding (PG&E 20A). The utilities have a duty and responsibility to provide upkeep and maintenance to its delivery system. (b) All utilities need to contribute. (c) The Cal campus has underground wiring. The university can now contribute to all streets that serve dorms, streets surrounding the campus and any streets near other UC buildings. (d) Cal Train, (e) FEMA (for access to wildfire prone areas), (f) stimulus funds, (g) Berkeley Transfer Tax funds, (h) grant money can all be pooled to move this process along. 

The city of Berkeley needs to have the will to improve safety by decreasing the risk of fires caused by arching wires and fallen poles. Overhead wires are also a danger in the event of earthquakes and landslides. A line item on the city budget needs to be set in stone to gather the resources and move with all due speed to underground the utility wires in the entire city. 

Cities all up and down California are far ahead of Berkeley on undergrounding wires. It is time for the city of Berkeley to further protect its neighborhoods by focusing future funding for underground wiring on roads that serve as emergency access and evacuation routes until all utility wires throughout the city are underground. 


Pamela Doolan is a Berkeley resident.