Undergrounding utilities, status, history
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Piedmont Pines’ undergrounding project is broken into three phases (see map below). Combined, our project is PG&E’s largest-ever undergrounding endeavor. Our project falls under California Public Utilities Rule 20A, which is a huge benefit to residents because utilities pay 100% of their construction out of rate payer’s fees allocated to each jurisdiction (City, Counties etc.) for utility undergrounding.
- Undergrounding will avoid or eliminate an unusual heavy concentration of overhead electric facilities (Chelton corridor qualified here);
- The street or road or right-of-way is extensively used by the general public and carries a heavy volume of pedestrian or vehicular traffic ;
- The street or road or right-of-way adjoins or passes through a civic area or public recreation area or an area of unusual scenic interest to the general public (Castle qualified here); and
- The street or road or right-of-way is considered an arterial street or major collector as defined in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research Guidelines (Skyline, Ascot qualified here)
Click on the green button above for a nice overview of undergrounding. There's also a good summary of current Rule 20A issues here: http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M187/K324/187324749.PDF
Many homes inside and outside these three phases already have undergrounded utilities. Why? Since 1967, California has required that all new electric service connections be placed underground.
Status of PPNA Undergrounding
Ascot corridor: DONE!
October 2011: Ground breaking party
December 2013: Construction wrapped up*. New street lights installed.
2015: All but 2 poles (cellular antennas) removed; remaining poles reconfigured in 2018
*After a community vote that the pacing of construction should be "go as fast as you can," PG&E, the lead utility, often used four crews at a time, enabling all the trenching and conversion of electrical power to be completed a year ahead of schedule.
Chelton corridor. In Design phase. Here's a link to the map
February 2015: Major hurdles getting this phase started were cleared
July 2017: Boundary map, engineering assessment for street lighting system finalized. Community meeting to discuss process, show of interest ballot. Property owners voted 70% approval.
2018: Qualification under Rule 20-A disputed. Not resolved until 2020.
2023: Phase 2 enters Design Phase. Design will continue through 2024. In 2025, approvals, land acquisition, permitting, and contracting will begin, wrapping up in 2026. Construction is slated to start in 2027 and finish in 2029.
Castle corridor. At risk due to changes in CPUC Rule 20A tariff.
Now for the most unsettling news: our final phase, the Castle Drive corridor, is at risk. In mid-2023, the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that the tariff under which our undergrounding falls will be eliminated. The primary argument is that all ratepayers pay into the undergrounding fund and very few benefit from it. At PPNA’s urging, the city hired outside counsel that specializes in utility matters to fight on our behalf. The case presented was compelling, but alas, we lost.
The lawyers then appealed to have our Phase 3 grandfathered. We lost again. The next step is complicated but involves determining how much funding remains in the city’s allocation of what are called “work credits.” This will determine if at least some of the project can get done while the tariff is phasing out, or if the whole project can still get done but at what will likely be an exorbitant cost. And then, who pays?
Gnarly issues. Mayor Thao has committed to see what all the options are. Once again, stay tuned.
"Brief" History (There's nothing brief about this project ;-)
In 1987, Piedmont Pines filed a petition with the City to have all utility lines within its boundaries undergrounded under the California Public Utilities Commission’s Rule 20A, which basically sets out a pot of money from the tax on utility bills to cover undergrounding of the phone, power and cable lines.
In 1999, Piedmont Pines rose to the top of the City’s waiting list. Just as we finished tabulating votes among residents to establish an assessment district to fund the homeowner’s portion of the project, everything came to a screeching halt, with a host of complex legal and regulatory issues affecting all Rule 20! undergrounding projects in the state.
From 2000 to 2003, the association spoke in hearings before the CPUC and the state legislature about what criteria should be considered in forming undergrounding districts. We were joined by the City in our argument that public safety and emergency access should be heavily weighted. We were denied, and a new provision restricting 20A undergrounding to arterial streets meant that over half our streets were eliminated from the undergrounding project. The legal and regulatory proceedings forced us to step out of line and allow the undergrounding of MacArthur Blvd to proceed.
In 2004, we reluctantly accepted a compromise offered by PG&E, the lead utility in this project, that we break the project into three phases because of its complexity (hillsides, narrow streets) and the size of the project. This is the largest Rule 20A project in the state.
In 2008, Phase 1 residents voted to establish an assessment district. While utilities pay 85% of the cost from fees on utility bills across the state, property owners in Oakland are charged the remaining 15% to cover the City’s administration expenses and installation of new street lights that are compatible with an undergrounding system. Property owners have the option of paying the assessment in a lump sum or paying with their property taxes over 30 years starting with the 2010-11 tax year.
From 2008 to 2011, the project went through the design phase, with lots of largely unexplained delays along the way. Placement of transformers was one issue, but did not explain the full delay.
In 2011, PPNA deployed a finely tuned strategy to force all parties to resolve remaining roadblocks and get construction under way. We mediated meetings, and at long last, got all issues resolved.
In October 2011, PPNA hosted a long awaited groundbreaking celebration for Phase 1.
From fall 2011 through winter 2014, construction of the new undergrounding system for Phase 1 was completed and nearly all poles were removed in 2015.
2015 We battled against cancellation of Phase 2. Utilities claimed it didn't fit the CPUC Rule 20-A criteria, but PPNA ultimately prevailed and the project got back on course--or so we thought. Read on, to 2018.
2017 The preliminary Engineering Assessment for Phase 2 to determine approximate costs was completed, and results from the July show of interest ballots favored by 70% to proceed to the next step.
2018 A year of utter frustration
- February: City Finance and Management Committee voted 4 - 0 to advance the resolution to proceed with creating an assessment district and to accept the Engineer's Report to City Council
- March to December: City Council vote was deferred to accept Engineering Report and to approve balloting procedures to create an assessment district. Deferral was due to PG&E renewing the dispute whether Chelton Dr meets the criteria, the issue PPNA thought was resolved in 2015. PPNA gathered forces and pushed hard on City and PG&E partners. Residents joined PPNA in filing formal comments with the CPUC defending qualification of Phase 2. The City hired outside counsel to work with PG&E to remove roadblocks.
2019 A wild ride at the CPUC
- January: PG&E filed a variance with the CPUC to include properties they claim don't meet the Rule 20A criteria, and answered additional question in its March Supplemental filing. IOur primary argument was that the initial authorization of the PPNA project in 2000 did not break it into three phases. With all properties included, the ratio of qualified properties was high enough to pass the Rule 20-A bar. PPNA filed additional comments that because Chelton carries a high volume of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, it should qualify.
- August: CPUC staff drafted a resolution denying the variance, but before it was presented to the full commission for a vote, the draft was pulled.
- November: CPUC staff reversed its position that denied the variance and proposed that Phase 2 should proceed as a 20-A project.
2020 Hope reigns, but COVID-19 disrupts plans
- January: The CPUC formally accepted Phase 2 as a Rule 20A project.
- March: With COVID's attack on the City budget, suddenly DOT could not find a way to pay the consultant's fee to manage the street lighting and administrative tasks the City is responsible for. PPNA appealed to the mayor and funds were released.
- July: Council passes resolution to accept the contract of Harris & Associates to manage the city's portion of the project.
- Year-long: PPNA lobbies to expedite Phase 3 after learning the CPUC is expected to rule soon on terminating all Rule 20A projects over a 10-year period.
2021 Phase 2 is approved and ready for design and construction, at last!
- January: Mayor says budgets and staffing prohibit advancing Phase 3
- May 10: Council approves Harris' timeline, costing, ballot procedures; establishes an official Undergrounding District, and puts the issue up to property owners whether or not to form an assessment district.
- May 20: Property owners' meeting convened to spell out project costs, assessment, financing, balloting
- June 4: Ballots mailed to property owners to establish an assessment district, with July 20 cut off date for voting
- July 20: Public hearing, ballot tabulated. Council votes 8 to 0 to establish the Assessment District
- 165 ballots cast of 223 properties
- 142 voted yes (93%)
- PG&E pulls all 20A projects from budgets through 2023. PPNA rallied stakeholders at the City and successfully got Phase 2 put back into the 2022-23 work plan at PG&E.
- CPUC opened proceedings to review whether Rule 20A should continue as a ratepayer funded investment in undergrounding utilities and whether more cost-effective wildfire mitigation strategies should be deployed. At the end of an arduous process and a wild ride for PPNA, the CPUC ruled that "it is reasonable to discontinue the Rule 20A program over a 10-year span.
- PPNA, with the help of outside counsel hired by the city, requested a rehearing in order to get Phase 3 grandfathered in. We lost.
- The questions now are 1) whether there are enough work credits (allocated by PG&E to each jurisdiction--Oakland in our case) to do at least some of Phase 3, and if so, 2) who would pay the difference to complete the job, or 3) would we only be able to do part of it?