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City's electric-wire program hangs in the balance

Original post made on Dec 20, 2012

For nearly 50 years, the City of Palo Alto has slowly and steadily converted electric lines around town from overhead to underground. With 70 more years to go before completing the task, the city is considering creating a new advisory body to gauge community sentiments about whether to continue the costly infrastructure project.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, December 20, 2012, 8:43 AM

Comments (80)

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

Another 70 years??????

As someone who has a pole in the backyard, I can testify that the number of times I have had a guy come in and climb that pole in all types of weather is more than I can count. On top of that, I get crews about twice a year all coming into the backyard to trim trees, take away a truckfull of debris after checking first for dogs. All this costs money that would not have to be apportioned if the lines were underground. On top of that, we have had a transformer blow on the pole which caused an outage to the entire neighborhood whic was caused by a squirrel, the cooked carcass of which was carried out in plain view of my preschooler.

And most of this is just annual preventative maintenance, and doesn't take into account any outage which may occur because of wind/storms.

Fallen wires in storms have the danger of causing fires, electrocution and at the very least the necessity of keeping residents away often at their cost in time and not being able to leave for work or use a car, etc.

How can it not be more cost efficient to underground the lines? I feel sure that preventative maintenance to underground wires must be cheaper than what must be done at present. Even when something happens underground that requires work, it doesn't mean that streets have to be dug up as modern technology allows robot devices to travel to the underderground fault remotely.

Please, let's get this done. We seem to be a third world country in this respect.

Posted by gk
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 20, 2012 at 9:46 am

This is only being questioned at all because the north half of Palo Alto is already underground.

Posted by expensive
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 9:52 am

The city (via taxpayers) will only pay to put the main lines underground. Individual homeowners have to hook up to that themselves. Local contractors are charging up $10,000 and up for this service. Are the benefits of underground wires really worth the price?

Posted by Anna
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:29 am

I can't afford to pay for this, especially since it is NOT necessary. I, too, have utility poles along my back fence, and there have been very, very few problems or inconveniences in the many years I have lived here.

Why go looking for problems and saddle lower-income people with huge expenses for something they don't need? There are lots of people in Palo Alto who aren't rich, and it isn't only struggling seniors.

Palo Alto has a lot of pressing problems and issues to focus on and spend money on. This can WAIT until times are better and money is better. Don't go looking for trouble or make people's lives worse.

Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:32 am

Just because PA Utilities undergrounds the primary lines (10KV) does not mean AT&T and Cable won't do the same. When PA Utilities undergrounds the primary and provides a path for secondary, will AT&T and Cable also underground their lines?

Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:39 am

I think what people in our neighborhood care about is that there is still the attitude in the town government that the North side of town somehow is "more equal" than the south side when it comes to these projects. I think it particularly irked people several years ago when the elementary school renovation started on the North side and then were very poorly overseen and managed by the time they got to schools on the south side.

We are getting the new library, but again, the project has been very badly overseen and is more than a year behind schedule. I can not help but think if the construction site were closer to city hall, more attention would be paid to it. Councilmen driving past could see how few workers were at the site most of the time.

Furthermore, the south side is receiving too much of the new high density developments with the resulting increase in traffic and school overcrowding. Again, if councilmen drove through these neighborhoods every day, this would be obvious to them.

Posted by Solon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:56 am


City Utilities should NOT be run by council, obviously.

Council can just not run 100 million dollar utility, 100 million dollar health care, 100 million dollar retiree health care, 100 million dollar pensionsm or is it 1,oo,ooo,ooo our pension burden?
100 million park system land value may be billion, streets, sewers, police fire, senior games, homeless, tasers, it is really just HOPELESS
till government is SMALLER and NECESSARY ONLY

This show NO NEW TAXES are needed of course.

(Most don;t know cost of undergrounding was subsidized by federal phone regulation, which allowed Pacific Telephone to be charged majrity of costs, use taxpayer funds, then call it capital, then put it in rate base, you are STILL PAYING FOR from older work)

Posted by Carol
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:02 am

I agree entirely with the resident of Adobe- Meadows. I would like my area of town to look as nice as the North side of town. The new library is not a good addition visually, it is close to the street with no tress to hide the HUGE monster. I have a telephone pole in front of my house. When I moved in 30 years ago, I was told it would be gone soon since they would be putting everything underground. I'm still waiting. I'm really annoyed at the way the tree people hack at the trees without any thought of shape. Take the money we spend for them to ruin our trees and put that towards underground wiring. I don't think you should be asking the opinions of people living on a block with no wires- ask us, the ones stuck with poles, wires and bad trees.

Posted by It's the pattern of behavior that is the problem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:05 am

Using up resources by serving the north first and then dropping a
project or reducing its scope when it is time to serve the south is a long-standing pattern of behavior of both the city and school district. I could cite many examples.

South Palo Alto, take note. Our school board (also a majority from north PA) will decide soon where the next elementary school should go. Most of the projected growth is in the south and west, but I bet they'll decide to build in the north at the Garland site first. They'll tell us that a south PA elementary school is coming soon, and then they'll delay that project for years. They'll have to. The bond measure money will be almost completely depleted with the Garland project.

Be vigilant. Watch your electeds to make sure they using the power you have given them to represent your interests fairly. Politicians notice when you are not paying attention.

Posted by north pa
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:07 am

The lines should go underground. There is less maintenance, higher reliability, and not insignificantly, more beauty in not seeing wires everywhere. These lines should have been buried at the outset at the cost of developers (like other basic infrastructure). The only question is, why not get this done much, much sooner. Let's pick up the pace!

To the one comment, I can attest that North Palo Alto is not fully undergrounded.

Posted by Good grief
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:07 am

Here's a good idea - how about the people with underground utilities already (i.e. the north side) pay a special tax to accelerate the south side undergrounding? We have all paid taxes for the last 50 years, and so far they are the only ones to benefit. The idea that we should now have to pay more to get what others already have - ridiculous.

The financial irresponsibility of past city government here is breathtaking.

Posted by John
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:09 am

I definitely support completing the job; not equitable with regard to property values if only half the city is done

Posted by North
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

I live on the North Side and my utility lines are not underground. So let's not start generalizing and dividing here based on geography.

But it would be nice if the article had a little more info on how these projects are currently identified and prioritized? Not clear if it takes some citizen initiative or not and if so, how to go about that. If the info was a little better communicated the City might see a clearer picture of demand.

As someone who doesn't have it, it would be disapointing to hear that other areas have benefited and now the city has reached almost a majority it is ready to say there isn't much interest in this. Well, duh. Certainly not for those who already benefited. How did they get in this "exclusive club"?

Posted by Boo
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:18 am

Get rid of them! Lets move forward into the nmodern era like many other comunities. Palo Alto is ahead technologically in so many other ways, its time that our infrastructure reflects that. The steep price of housing here also does not justify utility poles in people's backyards.

I'd much prefer to look up and see trees rarher than electric lines.

Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

Instead of spending all that money on the power lines, how about the city devoting a similar amount of money on other infrastructure projects that benefit southern Palo Alto? For example, north Palo Alto has a great bicycle boulevard, but it dead ends in midtown and does not connect to Mountain View. How about a bicycle boulevard for southern Palo Alto? And we are still waiting for that pedestrian path under Hwy 101 to get fixed, after a full year of closure. If it is true that southern Palo Alto schools are being short changed, that needs to be remedied, too.

Posted by Good grief
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:31 am

A good point above - a city survey that showed a majority of residents were ready to stop would be meaningless, since a lot already have it. The only votes that should count are those who don't already have it. Otherwise, we should truly pit the "haves" vs. the "have-nots."

Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:37 am

I care..I for one would like the lines put underground, even if it takes many many years to complete the process. Why stop now? Besides, I believe that a portion of our utility bills are supposed to be used for this endeavor. Perhaps they have been spending it elsewhere?

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:40 am

North side and not underground 2x.

Posted by Stuart Berman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:48 am

Currently the overhead utilities hack an unsightly scar through the trees of my neighborhood. I've been waiting patiently for almost 25 years for the utilities department to put utilities underground in my neighborhood and improve the aesthetics here. I fully support the continuation of this project.

By the way, I think that the article incorrectly states that most of Old Palo Alto has had its utilities placed underground. There is certainly no under-grounding for blocks around in my area of Old Palo Alto.

Posted by DC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:58 am

There was an interesting comment by a utility person recently about above ground vs below ground utilities after Sandy. While on the surface it seems to make sense to get the lines away from things that fall on them or otherwise take them down, as we see here, it is a horrendously expensive and time-consuming endeavor. The expert stated that it makes much more sense to go to a "smart grid", with everyone participating. More efficient, less expensive to institute, and allows the utility companies to re-route power AROUND problems rather than leave people in the dark for hours/days waiting for the necessary repairs. I also have to question whether the debate re under vs over ground utilities applies in a state known for it's potential earthquake threats where huge segments of earth can be heaved up and moved inches or feet in an instant? We have an opportunity to do this right. Let's take the time to figure it out. The USGS could be an excellent resource as well.

Posted by Wendy
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 20, 2012 at 11:58 am

Underground the lines. On Yale St over the last few years there has been two squirrel electrocutions on top of switch boxes that has shut down whole chunks of the neighborhood. Costs a fortune to fetch the dead squirrel, remove the box, re-route the lines to get power back on and put in the new box when it arrives from the vendor...... Yes, it is expensive up front to do the undergrounding but when done it is much cheaper to maintain - I assume....

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm

A few years ago during a renovation we wanted to put our electrical underground. The City would let us IF we paid for the City's cost of undergrounding for the neighborhood, whoever chose to put the electrical underground first was responsible for the upfront cost of about $7000. This would have been in addition to whatever our contractor would charge us for our own service. Guess what we decided...

Posted by Digger
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Actually, underground electric lines are much more difficult to repair when they fail. In San Francisco a couple of years ago there was a fire/explosion that blew off manhole covers and it was over 24 hrs before anyone could enter because of the toxic smoke.

Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm

gk is absolutely right; the City has very carefully chosen to under ground neighborhoods in North Palo Alto but constantly ignored under grounding in South Palo Alto as follows:

"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, most of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, and large segments of Embarcadero and Page Mill roads."

So now they want to end the program. This is so typical of our City Council which gives to North Palo Alto but when it comes to South Palo Alto, it's too expensive.

Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Over the past 10 or so years the City has gone mad with increases in gas costs, electricity costs, garbage costs, sewer costs, etc. The increases are huge and of course, much of these revenues go to pay for the outrageous pensions for public employees.

No more money, and no more taxes for one more boondoggle. As it is, I continue to get a note every month to sign up for the idiotic wind farm. Does anyone realize that the wind farms at Altamont Pass have already killed more than 10,000 birs- just like flying into a fan. And Palo Alto and the rest of the state socialists and administration continue to push it, no matter how inefficient and stupid the idea really is.


Posted by Overhead in Ventura
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Actually south PA has a lot undergrounded in the nonresidential areas.
Map: Web Link

Undergrounding can be expensive to maintain. The City has to rebuild the older undergrounded equipment installed in the 60's & 70's already.

Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Do ONLY the Lines that are at the curbside right of way, and leave the backyard lines, difficult (and expen$ive) in place. (Thhis does not preclude the resident undergrounding to the pole)

And do those only if Comcast and AT&T (and and other Pole user) underground at the same time. One trench, share the cost of the trench.

Just to put perspective. I have poles on the back property line BUT my Power comes from Across the Street, In front :/

Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I believe that if a neighborhood already has underground services, they should not be able to comment on the continuation of the project.

Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm

While its frustrating that ALL of Palo Alto has been charged a 2% utilities tax for 50 years for undergrounding that hasn't happened for most of us, I think we need to look forward and be practical:
-With a $500M infrastructure back log, is the aesthetics of underground utilities a relatively high priority? Can we afford it?
-If we suspended the program, would the 2% utilities tax be suspended as well?
-Over the course of the 50 years and $50M (my guess) we've invested in this, has the utilities department done a study on the life-cycle costs of underground vs above-ground? (If not PLEASE don't hire yet another consultant to do it.)

Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I think the telephone polls are ugly and am glad to see streets that have the cables running under the ground. It's well worth the cost and the time - even if it takes another 70 years. I think the program should continue.

Full disclosure: the cables on the street I live on are underground.

Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm

If it took 47 years to underground 46% of the city, why will it take another 70 years to underground the remaining 54%? Shouldn't it only take another, say, 55 years?

Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm

"Others believe, erroneously, that the city has a plan to get to their neighborhood eventually," Scharff said.
We believe because we have been TOLD for over 40 years that the wave of undergrounding was moving from North to South. We here in S. Palo Alto have been irritated by the slow pace of progress but never in doubt that it would happen eventually.

When I reflect back on all the brouhaha about the "ugliness" of cell towers and DAD installations I wondered what the problem was. Take a walk along East Meadow sometime. I'll show you ugliness. We here in the southern half of town tolerate this by consoling ourselves that 'our turn will come'. Now we are told that these beliefs are "erroneous"?

It is just like paying off a credit card bill. Those who only pay the 'minimum' can expect to take tens of years to pay it off. If 4% of revenues was set aside for under grounding it would not take 70 years to get there. Council should stop using our utilities as a cash cow. The goal of having them city-owned was NOT to generate revenue for other purposes but presumably to insulate PA residents from the predations of PG&E etc. We need to put utility revenue back in the utility pot and use it to greatly improve our utility infrastructure to include undergrounding of wiring, fiber to the home, repair of gas,water and sewer lines.

Posted by neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Yes, poles are unsightly and affected by storms. However, underground might be an issue in the future should any flooding occur, especially near creeks and 101. Sandy pointed out how vulnerable underground utilities can be.

Posted by Longtimewaiting
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Two years ago we toured Cambodia and Vietnam and joked about the tangled nests of wires on poles along the streets. Our grins kind of soured when we came home and looked at the poles across the street from our home. And our electricity is connected by one thin, swaying wire to the pole across the street.
I wonder of any member of the City Council reads the comments posted here!

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm

> While its frustrating that ALL of Palo Alto has been charged
> a 2% utilities tax for 50 years for undergrounding that hasn't
> happened for most of us

Actually, the Utility Tax has only been around since 1989, or so--not fifty years. Moreover, it's been around 6.5%, not 2%. It was never for "undergrounding"--it was to pay for the lease of the Cubberley Center--transferring those funds to the PAUSD. The money collected went into the City's General Fund, not the Utility's Enterprise Fund, so it could not easily have been spent on "undergrounding".

Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Underground it and run dark fiber at the same time.

I think it would be a great policy for the city that any time they open a street up they should be putting fiber in, even if it's not hooked up to anything. The cost of the fiber is waaaaay less than the cost of ripping the street open again in the future.

Posted by Don
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Any and ALL mentions of undergrounding should make clear that if they put your wires underground, YOU will be charged $10,000 out of your own pocket, plus you will have to hire an electrical contractor to relocate the place where the power comes to your house. I can't afford this, at all, so I would rather just ignore the wires.

Also, for years the City has been charging me every month for storm drain improvements, and there has never been anything done. What a ripoff.

Posted by N P.A. eagerly awaiting undergrounding
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 20, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Still eagerly awaiting undergrounding in our N Palo Alto neighborhood. The above ground poles and wires are unsightly and unreliable. A utility pole in our backyard connects a maze of wires that crisscross our yard to our neighbors homes. Yuck. Outages from weather and rodents occur regularly.

Posted by TooMuch$$
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2012 at 12:00 am

That's a LOT OF BUCKS!
Not sure that it is that important.
The trains are still here, and they seem to work well, so keep the tracks.

Posted by mj
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 21, 2012 at 12:16 am

I didn't see anyone comment on the safety aspect in an earthquake of not having live wires draped across our street.

Would our children know to avoid these live wires if on their way to or from school, or walking and biking around town?

Considering how much money the city is siphoning off from utilities to the city's general fund, a hidden tax to residents (and a nice little dodge passed by the council when they were giving employees the benefits we can't afford) some of this money should be retained by utilities and earmarked to continue the under grounding project. With a fund set aside to help low income residents hook up.

Under-grounding in my neighborhood will not happen. A majority of property owners have to agree and the cost to hook up is very expensive. We have a lot of rentals and the landlords are not going to vote for this.

My unfortunate street tree, a liquid amber planted by the city circa late 60's and a completely idiotic choice under utility lines, has had an annual "flat top" pruning by the city for about 30 years, paid for by us.

Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2012 at 8:27 am

> I didn't see anyone comment on the safety
> aspect in an earthquake of not having live
> wires draped across our street.

There is very little likelihood of this happening in sufficient numbers to be concerned. While there was widespread electrical outages during the Loma Prieta Quake, having wires down across the roads didn’t happen, as memory serves. This sort of damage happens more from storms where there is high wind, rather than earth movements.

> Would our children know to avoid these live wires

Hopefully, this sort of information is taught to every child in their homes, by their parents—the same way parents teach their children not to poke hair pins into electrical outlets, or run out into moving traffic after ball.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2012 at 8:42 am

If the underground wire project is suspended, I'd recommend a class action lawsuit to recover the past utilities surcharges for this project.

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

I am another North Palo Alto resident without underground lines - and I have an ugly pole in my backyard.
I am concerned to read that I would personally have to pay 10k to underground my drop (if and when the city decided to underground the main lines running through our backyard)?! Why does it cost 10K - the distance isn't that far.
There are regular problems with squirrels on the lines/equipment here, too, yet I notice some neighbors FEED the squirrels (who are overpopulated vermin)! The last thing we need is more squirrels (who also dig in the garden and carry disease)

Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2012 at 9:27 am

Another thing, I think it was about a year ago (?) I entered my street and saw an astonishing thing - they were blocking the street as a major operation was occurring - the replacement of a telephone pole (in someone's backyard - thank God not mine) Fortunately for us, our pole is in good shape (I was told). You do get utilites people in your yard if you have a pole, from time to time - if lines are underground, do they need to enter to open and check into some box periodically?

Posted by jim - North Palo Alto
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

The most common thread of this discussion seems to be that folks in South Palo Alto seem to think the North is getting more benefits. Didn't know there was so much pent up anger.

I live on the North side and our street is not under grounded.

Clearly we need some more city wide discussion about this.
1. More info from the city with maps on what is undergrounded already
2. How does the city prioritize where to underground next?
3. What is the sequence of all future potential neighborhoods to be undergrounded?

And as some have said. If it can be shown that undergrounding can perhaps save money, and if fiber and other useful benefits can be obtained, then there may be an argument for it.

But if those that have been undergrounded had to pay $10K, then maybe they didn't get such a great benefit.

Posted by milefive
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

milefive is a registered user.

My neighborhood has not gone underground yet. There is a utility pole in my backyard with spaghetti wires drooping dangerously low leading to my house and all my neighbors houses. It is an *eyesore* and a health hazard. I care very much about this project and nominate my neighborhood to be the very next in line to have our wires plowed underground. I would be very happy to pay higher taxes to have this service implemented. I have been jealously watching other select neighborhoods have their wires put underground and know that their property values have increased partly due to the lack of such an eyesore and health hazard. Please pay to have this service finished as soon as possible, City Officials, because I do care. Thank you.

Posted by gsheyner
a resident of another community
on Dec 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm

gsheyner is a registered user.

Dear Readers,

If anyone wishes to see which parts of the city have undergone the underground conversion and which have not, the information is available in the staff report below. Please scroll to the map on the final page of the report.

Web Link

Thank you and happy holidays.


Posted by Heather Lane resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm

DEFINITELY want undergrounding, the sooner the better... safer, more secure, and most importantly, MUCH MUCH more aesthetically pleasing -- this is an economic issue (aesthetics) as well as a safety issue. Also, based on falling trees in storms, through age, etc. it can save quite a bit on maintenance and the loss of power, etc.

Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm


Your article say that "most of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood", but the staff report doesn't show that. The staff report shows that University South/Professorville, parts of Crescent Park, parts of Midtown are the residential neighborhoods where the undergrounding has occurred. Most of the parts of the undergrounding are around the commercial areas: downtown, Stanford Industrial Park, California Ave.

Posted by Dave
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I to feel that this project should be completed and should not take anywhere near 70 years if done efficiently and in a coordinated fashion. Long term this has to be a cost savings and will surely add to the aesthetics of our community.

Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 21, 2012 at 7:36 pm

There is NO undergrounding between Channing-Embarcadero and Newell to 101. I don't think that Channing to Newell is underground either. These north vs. south barbs are out of line. This is virtually the entire Duvenck/St. Francis area and south of Embarcadero, When you speak of North Palo Alto, define what you mean.

Posted by gsheyner
a resident of another community
on Dec 21, 2012 at 8:11 pm

gsheyner is a registered user.

Common Sense,

You are absolutely correct. The section I was looking at is actually north of Old Palo Alto, in the University South and Professorville Area. Thank you for the catch and sorry for the error.


Posted by Deborah Goldeen
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 21, 2012 at 8:39 pm

Above ground poles are an eyesore. Day and night difference between areas with underground utilities and those with utilities underground. As a city, we want this.

By the way, how do you contact "the commission" that is supposed to be assessing what "the ground" feels?

If north Palo Alto still had above ground poles, they wouldn't be questioning this.

Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2012 at 10:10 pm

$10,000 is way too much for each homeowner to be charged, especially since a lot of us are having a hard time these days. For those of you who are wealthy, that is nice for you, but please don't saddle us non-wealthy neighbors with something we can't begin to afford.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2012 at 9:45 am

As with virtually everything associated with the Palo Alto Utility, there is little transparency associated with this project. What’s needed is a full history of the project, and a complete accounting of all of the costs associated with it—both public and private.
Finding out how much has been spent to date, and how much will be spent to complete this work will probably end up being impossible to know, given how long this project has been on-going.

It’s probably not hard to guess that the total price tag is over $500M—with unknown costs associated with the long term maintenance of the buried electrical distribution system. The main benefit seems to be “beautification”—with few other benefits that can be stated as obvious.

The Utility needs to provide the public information about maintenance issues that we residents can not really know anything about. For instance, what maintenance issues has the Utility experienced with the electrical cables that it has “undergrounded” to date, that it has not experienced with the pole-mounted cables? Are there any “ownership benefits” of buried vs suspended cable, such as longer replacement cycles because the cable is no longer exposed to “the elements”? And then there is the issue of flooding in some parts of Palo Alto. Is it possible to bury the cable runs so that flooding can be avoided?

With the City claiming that there is a backlog of over $500M in deferred/needed maintenance, and the never-ending demand for new spending by the hundreds of special interest groups that target Palo Alto for support, spending another $200M-$300M of the public’s money for “pretty” seems to be very extravagant, and not a very good use of our collective funds.

It’s a real shame that the Utility has not been managed by people who recognize the need for transparency, and have provided the public/rate payers a continuous accounting of this project, as well as all of the Utility's projects.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2012 at 9:49 am

> this is an economic issue (aesthetics) as well as a safety issue

Could the person who posted this please explain his/her thinking on how undergrounding is an: 1) economic issue and 2) a safety issue?


Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2012 at 10:02 am

I should have taken a moment to do a little research on this matter of long-term maintenance issues associated with undergrounding the electrical distribution equipment. Seems that the problems associated with it were brought to the public’s attention back in 1996

City wants to reverse trend of putting electrical equipment underground:
Web Link

The problem with underground equipment (transformers, switches and connectors) is it does not perform as well or as long as it should, said Larry Starr, assistant director of engineering and operations for the department.

"The equipment has come back to haunt us. We're not getting the life expectancy we should. The reliability is low, maintenance costs are higher and it costs more to install (than above-ground equipment)," Starr said.

A "pad-mounted," above-ground transformer will last 30 to 40 years and is very reliable, Starr said. The city's underground transformers last an average of 15 to 20 years before "they've rusted through."

"The environment, the dirty water, it's quite corrosive over a period of time," Starr said.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 22, 2012 at 10:38 am

I am no expert in such matters, but I do have some common sense.

I have traveled widely in Europe and also on the East Coast. Utilities are always underground in the places I have been and are of far superior quality in terms of lack of outages and quick to improve, upgrade or encompass new technology with very little impact to neighborhoods, street digging, etc.

I find it hard to believe that these areas, many of them much longer established than Palo Alto, can have done all this for efficiency reasons while Palo Alto feels that it is more efficient to have them hanging overhead. We are an urban (or at least suburban area) - definitely not rural.

When it comes to working out the cost of an outage the Utility seems to think solely in what it costs them in putting the service back online. When it comes to the true cost to the customers, it is impossible to count due to the fact that many residences are used at least part of the time for running businesses or working at home. With globalization of many industries that Palo Altans work on, getting online conferences with the other side of the world can occur at any time day or night, deadlines for paperwork (don't know the online phrase that covers all types of paperwork) need to be submitted at any time of day, as well as just working from home, shows that a simple power outage to the city may not be just having no lights for a couple of hours, but can interrupt the working life for many and in all sorts of ways.

Undergrounding and making the service more reliable, up to date and efficient, is not just aesthetics, but crucial to many of us. We are not talking about beautification (although that is important too), we are just asking for what the rest of the world seems to take for granted.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2012 at 10:48 am

> we are just asking for what the rest of the world
> seems to take for granted.

The rest of the world? Really? You mean all of South America, Central America, Canada, Asia, and Africa too?

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 22, 2012 at 11:02 am

OK Wayne, point taken. You know I meant the developed world or the business world. Since I haven't traveled to many of the places you mention I can't answer for everywhere on earth, but I have traveled extensively in Western Europe and the East Coast where it is the norm.

Please don't split hairs on my argument, I started off by saying that I was no expert, but our many visitors always comment on our backward ways here in what they envision the place that should have the most up to date services.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 22, 2012 at 11:09 am

I lived in an East Bay community for many years that was built new from the ground up. We had underground utilities and yet we had power outages there more often than we have them here. We had outages in midsummer, clear weather for no apparent reason there! I think the problem is with the administration at the utility company itself. Aside from being ugly and somewhat dangerous, in my experience overhead wires are not much less efficient than underground.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

> Please don't split hairs on my argument,

Not splitting hairs, but calling your basic claims into question.

> Utilities are always underground in the places I have
> been and are of far superior quality in terms of lack
> of outages and quick to improve,

Ah .. this is very hard to believe. Anyone who actually grew up on the East Coast knows that there are frequent outages to the electrical grid that can take up to a month to restore. Hurricanes, particularly devastating to the coastal areas during the late summer and fall, and ice storms all over the North East in the winter, can easily take out the grid for up to a month at a time.

Hurricane Isabel/Energy Impacts:
Web Link

3.7M without power; records shattered in N.J., Pa.:
Web Link

List of Notable Power Outages (Worldwide):
Web Link

The US power grid is generally about the most stable in the world—with uptime at/about 99.9% of the time.

Posted by resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm

It may be possible for your neighborhood to have overhead wires yet still be considered "undergrounded" by the City. The new house next door has underground electrical service via a new vault in the sidewalk, while every other house on our block is powered via overhead wires from the poles across the street. The sidewalk vault is evidently powered from underground somehow. I wish I had paid more attention to how it was done when it was installed. And even though it has underground power, the house next door still gets its phone and cable from overhead. This is in Crescent Park.

Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm

As pointed out above, putting electrical service underground will not eliminate the unsightly poles. I was looking at Colorado today, which has poles on both sides of the street. Electrical power is on top, but below those wires are multiple thick bundles of phone lines, cable TV, etc.

Posted by Ml
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm

A gradual implementation over 70 years makes no sense. If the plan was to put the lines under ground city wide it should be implemented in a reasonable time frame. Just doing 50% of the city and then coming to a halt seems very unreasonable.

This is a high priority that should be taken up by the city. Burt's argument that this is less of a priority than other projects such as a new police headquarters and improvements to Byxbee Park is false. Burying the wires will positively affect many more citizens than either of the other projects that the city plans to spend resources on.

Posted by CC
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Resident@CP, Do you have a "E" marking on the curb outside of your house? In any case, you will need to move the FUSE box from the back of your house to meet the power coming from the vault. No problem if it is a brand new house where . Are you ready for the ground work?

Posted by John Salwitz
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 22, 2012 at 7:14 pm


Let us finish what we have started. It is only equitable and fair that all of us get this benefit from the city.

I appreciate the difference between looking at utility lines or looking at the sky.

I look forward to the day when the poles come down on my street!

Posted by barron park resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2012 at 12:51 am

I hope the city follows through with the logical choice to place wires underground. The projects makes sense and deserves attention. The palo alto weekly should give this topic some attention instead of rehashing the topics that tend to divide the city. North and South apparently want wires underground, so this topic should be publicized.

I was under the impression that new homes were once required to place wires underground. At least my home in Barron Park (built approx. 1998) had wires underground. I still have a giant pole infront of my home that is used by neighbors and cable. Anyone know if new homes are supposed to place wires underground by choice or a requirement?

Posted by John
a resident of another community
on Dec 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Palo Alto like other communities needs to pull every dollar it can from every project it can, in order to fund the underfunded pensions.

The overpaid over staffed bureaucrats have you arguing about "whatever" while they raid taxpayer & ratepayer funds.

Posted by Can't do
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Seriously, float a project and let the Chinese bid on it. We Americans don't have the guts to do any project. Splineless.

Posted by OldTimer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 24, 2012 at 10:15 am

About three years ago my neighborhood utilities were put underground. Well worth the expense to no longer have a poll and wires running though my backyard. The difference is breathtaking; when I look at old pictures of the backyard I can't believe how much better it is now without the wires. I fully support continuing the project for the whole city, even accelerating it.

As I remember it, the city subsidized most of the cost and I had to come out of pocket $2000. The city offered a long term payment plan, put into the utility bill. Additional cost for moving and upgrading my electrical box, not required, was about $600. We got many quotes and they ranged into the thousands, so shopping around for a reasonably priced electrician was well worth it.

Posted by resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Old Timer:

That was very useful information. I am all for the idea of underground wires for safety and " views",, its nice to know this was not an unreasonable expense. Hope the Palo Alto Newspapers and city officials publicize this type of useful information.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 25, 2012 at 1:58 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

The $10K figure is not accurate for the cost to homeowners. An FAQ (Web Link from the city for the currently-in-process undergrounding of district 45 (Web Link which indicates these average costs. The average prices are less than claimed by the following two posters:

'expensive' wrote "Local contractors are charging up $10,000 and up for this service." 'Don' wrote "...YOU will be charged $10,000 out of your own pocket, plus you will have to hire an electrical contractor to relocate the place where the power comes to your house."

Here is what the FAQ says on this matter:
"Typical conversion costs for detached single family homes range from $4500 to $8000 with the average being around $4500." This includes the cost for labor & materials, including making the connections, so Don's claim of "plus you will have to hire an electrical contractor..." is not accurate, it is included.

Additionally, "The City will offer each affected owner the option of borrowing money at a favorable interest rate and spreading the payments over a ten year period."

As for some other commenters asking what about phone and cable, the FAQ indicates these are included.

I agree with others that if it were put to vote or a survey, it should be clear whether the person voting already has their utilities undergrounded. A vote or survey should make clear the cost to the property owner, the reliability of equipment, distribution energy losses above vs under ground (likely more loss underground), the costs of the program versus the cost to trim back trees from the lines, etc.

On the north vs south contention, looking at the maps that 'gsheyner' provided (Web Link it seems there are about equal number of districts done north and south of Oregon/Page Mill. It could be that more of the sites north are residential. I think the city has mostly done the easy ones first.

Personally, I support continuing this effort. The trimming of trees away from the lines is expensive and ugly, and the lines are ugly. However, effort should be made to improve equipment reliability and maintenance. Also, we should be extending fiber optics to the premises in the same package.

Posted by paresident
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 26, 2012 at 9:48 am

I don't understand why it is taking so long. If the city utilities has been getting 2% taxes for this specific purpose of undergrounding wires, where did that money go?

We moved to Green Acres I (as south as you can get in Palo Alto) over 20 years ago and our wires were all underground -- it is very beautiful that way and a lot safer too. We heard back then that all of Palo Alto's wires would be going underground. We fully support the rest of Palo Alto also getting this done.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 26, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

It would be great if we could speed up the process, though it would probably mean a lot of money up front. My understanding is that it has always been a 100 year plan. In a way it is good that it has taken so long, because we can see the actual performance and maintenance issues of the equipment options chosen over the years. From descriptions of current undergrounding projects, it looks like they are switching to more reliable pad-mount transformers instead of I think the other was "submersible" (don't quote me on that term). I don't know if that means that the transformers are above ground, or if they are burying pad mounts in underground vaults.

Normally transformers are whitish cylinders ("pole pigs") on the poles below the lines. They drop the voltage down, and feed several houses with split-phase power on three lines: 0V ground/neutral, +120V, and -120V. The voltage between the two live wires is 240V or 208V depending on the transformer configuration and phasing.

Posted by ndnorth
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm

It is incorrect to state that the Palo Alto NOrth has utilities underground-only part of Professorville has. I live in downtown North and we have poles and wires just in front of our house like the rest of the neighborhood. I would like it gone. In an earthquake will the poles come crashing on me? Underground is much safer.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 30, 2012 at 11:47 am

> My understanding is that it has always been a 100 year plan.

Well, there has been talk of undergrounding the utilities for over 100 years--

Web Link

but talking about it is far from being a plan.

The link points to three articles about the City's talking about undergrounding the utilities going all the way back to 1899.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 30, 2012 at 12:02 pm

> If the city utilities has been getting 2% taxes for this
> specific purpose of undergrounding wires, where did that
> money go?

There is no such tax.

Posted by Tina
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 24, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for the great article. I want to point out one more issue about power lines.

Children exposed to high level of magnetic fields have higher chances to develop brain cancer and leukemia. This is especially important for sleeping areas.

Overhead power lines are more dangerous than you might think! Although they are not as strong as high voltage towers, they're much closer to residential homes. Magnetic field inside a home under power poles might be as high as 2-3 milligauss (you can easily test it with this: Web Link).

Underground power lines are much better for EMF (Web Link):

"A study prepared by eight major New York State utilities showed that when a 345 kV transmission line is placed in steel pipe filled with oil and buried at a depth of five feet, the strength of the magnetic field measured one metre above the ground over the pipe is only about 1 mG during normal current flow, as compared with magnetic field strengths as high as 60 mG that can be measured at the edge of a 100 foot right-of-way for an overhead 345 kV transmission line."

Vote to continue the underground project, for our children's health!

Posted by Ceri
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 17, 2013 at 10:21 am

I live in Wales uk,I find that watching video clips of the usa City+Towns, Are really amusing to see all your Electric power lines ect above the Streets,I often go to the Far East India/Thai/Bali/Ect,Where you also see power cables above the ground,And these are 3rd World country,s,Get your act together,Because Asia are are doing it atb Ceri

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