Slowly but surely, utilities in Jewel get undergrounded

The good news is, the undergrounding of utilities in the Jewel is well under way.

The bad news is, it's going to take 26 years to complete.

That was the timetable for utilities undergrounding in La Jolla rolled out by Nathan Bruner, head of the city of San Diego's Engineering and Capital Department, at the Aug. 9 monthly meeting of La Jolla Town Council.

Through its undergrounding program, the city is currently replacing about 30 to 35 miles of overhead utility lines at an estimated $50 million cost annually. But it's a big job.

Undergrounding has actually been ongoing since 1970, but 1,000 miles of overhead lines remain to be undergrounded.

Bruner noted that, since 2003 when the California Public Utilities Commission approved placing an undergrounding surcharge on San Diego residents' electricity bills, the city has escalated its undergrounding efforts. "Since 2003 the city has quadrupled its undergrounding," he said, "by increasing its franchise fees. Since that time, we've done a number of projects citywide, some of which have been completed."

Bruner said there are five utilities undergrounding projects in the La Jolla area in the pipeline in the near-term. One is on Silverado Street in the Village. A second is on Soledad Avenue. A third project, in the Barber Tract, is scheduled to be revived after being temporarily stalled. A fourth project is on Hidden Valley Road. The fifth project is in the Bird Rock area.

Until recently, utilities undergrounding in the city has been accomplished on a linear basis along the course of certain streets. But Bruner noted that strategy is being replaced by an approach involving undergrounding of large, multi-block grids, like the project in the Barbart Tract, which affects numerous customers.

"The Barber Tract project has 359 customers," noted Bruner. "That project began in late '06, but was stalled due to problems with acquisition involving private easements. Those problems have since been resolved and the project will begin again after Labor Day, and will probably take 14 to 15 months to complete, affecting one summer (of construction) along the beach instead of two summers."

Utilities undergrounding involves four phases. During the first phase, city crews create a trench and install round plastic conduit below the surface of the roadway. The next phase involves cabling, wherein technicians place new utility lines within the new conduits. The new lines are then energized and brought into service. The third phase involves cut-overs. Once a new underground system is in place and energized, and all properties have been prepared to receive underground service, all properties are switched over from the overhead lines to the new underground systems, a process typically taking a month or two.

The fourth and final phase is pole removal, after 100 percent of overhead systems have been de-energized and removed and all power has been switched over to the new underground system. There's also some finishing touches work involved putting in new streetlights, resurfacing roads, etc.

La Jolla Town Councilman Ed Ward complained at the Aug. 9 town council meeting that utilities undergrounding in his neighborhood on La Jolla Scenic Drive South took exceptionally long and involved trenching and re-trenching, because it was determined the first conduit put in was insufficient. Ward said the work seemed not only unnecessarily time-consuming, but was noisy and disruptive to the surrounding neighborhood as well. "Why is it that the undergrounding that's been installed twice is substandard,?" he asked. "And why is it unable to accommodate transmission lines that should be easily undergrounded?"

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