Palo Alto's longest-running infrastructure project currently spans half of the city, costs tens of million of dollars and lies largely invisible to city residents.
The project -- the conversion of electric lines from overhead to underground -- has been in the works for nearly half a century now, and the end remains far beyond the horizon. Palo Alto embarked on the effort in 1965, when the city buried lines running above Oregon Expressway. Since that time, officials have converted about 46 percent of the city, including University Avenue, Middlefield Road, much of Professorville and large segments of Embarcadero and Page Mill roads.
But the future of the program is very much in doubt. The Utilities Department devotes about 2 percent of its electricity revenues for undergrounding project. At the current pace, it will take about 70 years to underground all of the city's electric lines, Senior Resource Planner Nico Procos said during the City Council's Finance Committee's discussion of this effort Tuesday, Dec. 18.
Now, city officials are trying to figure out whether the massive undergrounding project is worth the cost and the effort. The answer, they hope, will come from the ground up. On Tuesday the committee voted 2-1, with Councilman Pat Burt dissenting and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, to create a new advisory body that would gauge community sentiments about undergrounding electric wires. The most basic question that the officials hope to answer is: Do people care?
"Our thought on this is that we really need to get the community involved in this," Procos said. "We need to know whether there's a desire to look at this -- a desire to accelerate the program -- and is there a tolerance to pay for it?"
The staff recommendation to create a new advisory body already won the support of the Utilities Advisory Commission, which voted on Sept. 5. The council committee was more ambivalent, with Burt arguing that the conversation would distract the community from the city's more pressing infrastructure needs. The council is in the midst of planning for a 2014 ballot measure that would raise money for some of top items on the city's long list of infrastructure needs, which include a new police headquarters, upgrades to two obsolete fire stations and improvements to Byxbee Park.
The council has not considered including conversion of electric lines in its package of infrastructure projects that could go to the voters.
"I'm worried about taking our eye off the ball here and, at this point in time, diluting our resources," Burt said. "Why not take this up after we've come up with some more definitive direction in our major infrastructure issues?"
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd took the opposite stance and said now is the perfect time to discuss the topic with the community. Scharff said many in the community are concerned about why their neighborhoods are not targeted for the conversion. Others believe, erroneously, that the city has a plan to get to their neighborhood eventually, Scharff said. It's time for the city to explain the city's undergrounding conundrum and solicit public opinion on the topic.
"I think this is an issue in Palo Alto that has really festered a little bit," Scharff said. "And it's time we brought the community in to have a conversation."
"It's a big issue, and it's not clear what the right solution is," he later added. "It's not a solution that I as a council member would want to foist on the community. I want this to be from the ground up."
If the full council adopts the committee's recommendation, it would appoint the members of the new committee, which would solicit community feedback, consider the program's costs and funding options and make program recommendations for the council to ultimately adopt.
In recommending the new advisory body, utilities officials noted in a report that the issue of whether to underground electric lines is "primarily based on aesthetic values and is not a critical component of providing electric service to the residents and businesses in Palo Alto."
"As such, the decision to make substantial changes to the existing program to accelerate undergrounding will be based on individual considerations and value judgment," Procos wrote in the report. "Due to the very high cost of the conversions, it is preferable to engage the community early in the discussions on policy formulation."