In La Jolla, unsightly utility lines are going, going, but it will take several years before they’re completely gone.

Several utilities undergrounding projects are under way, and several more will be shortly, throughout the Jewel. A “last pole out” ceremony was held Sept. 22 for utilities recently undergrounded in the La Jolla Scenic South neighborhood.

The pace of utilities undergrounding in La Jolla and elsewhere in San Diego has been fast forwarded.

The City Council recently approved a renegotiated franchise agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. that will quadruple the amount of undergrounding of utility lines citywide. City Councilman Scott Peters, whose district includes La Jolla, sees this as positive change.

“In walking neighborhoods during my City Council campaign,” he said, “especially on Mount Soledad, La Jolla Shores and South University City, residents consistently complained about how slowly power lines have been put underground. In the city of San Diego, there are approximately 1,200 miles of utility lines which have already been undergrounded, but over 1,800 more miles have yet to be done. A good portion of those lines run right through some of the most beautiful neighborhoods of La Jolla. I am committed to moving as quickly as possible to remove this graffiti in the sky.”

San Diego has had a franchise agreement with SDG&E since 1970, which has always included a requirement that the power company allocate 4.5 percent of revenues to underground existing power lines. However, though SDG&E had allocated the money, it was not required to spend it.

Peters said the new franchise agreement with SDG&E gave the City Council a one-time opportunity to renegotiate the fee structure for the remaining 20 years of the existing agreement.

“The city has taken that opportunity and has come up with a plan,” Peters said, “that will make $34 million more available each year for undergrounding.”

The new franchise agreement does not prevent SDG&E from seeking approval from the California Public Utilities Commission for a rate increase, which would increase the typical ratepayer’s monthly utility bill an average of $2.70. But Peters said that’s a small price to pay for the beautification of neighborhoods.

“This small investment will result in significant value to your property and immeasurably to the enjoyment of the beauty of your neighborhood. Putting power lines underground is a critical infrastructure investment for our city. The new agreement offers resources, flexibility for the city and enforcement power that we have not had in the past.”

Residential utilities undergrounding in the city is being paid for with a $3 surcharge on resident’s monthly utility bills.

Nathan Bruner, the city’s underground program manager, said the primary reason for utilities undergrounding is improving aesthetics by removing visual obstruction and blight. But there are other benefits associated with undergrounding utility lines.

“Safety is one, because you don’t have the possibility of a wire being knocked down by weather, or cars running into a pole, though those are relatively rare instances in San Diego,” he said. “Undergrounded systems are also more reliable from the standpoint of outages.”

Bruner said undergrounding utility lines has been a requirement for lines installed since 1967.

“Anything built after that is underground,” he said. “Anything built before that, we’re converting from overhead to underground.”

When older utility lines are undergrounded, they’re also updated.

“For lines not up to current liability standards,” said Bruner, “when we underground, we design a new system that’s up to today’s standards of transportation, wire and conductivity sizes, which makes the system better because there’s less chance of having an outage. And fixing it is a little bit easier.”

Underground utility line systems do have higher maintenance costs, admitted Bruner.

“Getting to them and doing things to them isn’t a problem,” he said. “The main problem is locating the problem, if there is an outage. It takes longer to find out where the problem is because it’s buried.”

Bruner said San Diego has one of the most aggressive utilities undergrounding programs in the country.

“It’s certainly the most aggressive program in the state,” he said. “We funded $10 million in utilities undergrounding two years ago. Under the new program, we’re now doing $48 million a year in undergrounding.”

For utilities undergrounding, residential streets are now bundled together to make residential blocks. The plan allows one residential block per district to be undergrounded each year. Council District 1 has chosen the Barber Tract in La Jolla as the first residential block to be undergrounded,

After the Barber Tract, the next block undergrounded in District 1 will be in University City, and then the program will return to La Jolla for citywide master plan for utilities undergrounding to be brought forward to the City Council in the future for final approval.

Engineering considerations are factored into the decision of which areas in which council districts are undergrounded first.

“We encourage (council districts) to do areas contiguous to each other,” Bruner said, “which makes the process more efficient. We don’t want a patchwork.”

Several undergrounding projects in the works in La Jolla will be completed in the next few months. Bruner said one such project on La Jolla Mesa Drive in the Muirlands between Lamplight Drive and Turquoise serving 20 customers will be done in early November. Another small project on Silverado Street from Eads to Ivanhoe serving a couple customers will also be finished soon.

Work on another undergrounding project on Bird Rock Avenue from La Jolla Boulevard to the ocean, serving 26 customers, was set to begin in October but has been delayed a month due to easement issues.

Upcoming utilities undergrounding projects are: La Jolla Scenic Drive North from Sugarman to La Jolla Village serving 19 customers starting in January 2005; Princess and Spindrift to Torrey Pines serving 32 customers beginning in March 2005; Hidden Valley Road/Via Capri, from Torrey Pines Road to La Jolla Scenic South serving 32 customers starting in March 2005; and Soledad Avenue from Hillside Drive to Exchange Place running parallel to Torrey Pines Road serving 48 customers commencing March 2005.

The first La Jolla block utilities undergrounding project, Project Block 1-F in the Barber Tract serving 366 customers, is set to begin in December 2005.

“It’s being designed right now,” said Bruner, “going from Eads Avenue all the way to the water encompassing Prospect Street and Coast Boulevard. That’s our first big block. It takes about 24 to 30 months to complete each block, but we’re going to start one every year.”