Placing overhead utility lines below city streets, or “undergrounding”, has helped to beautify Pasadena, reduce the number of outages, enhance public safety and protect our urban forest. After nearly 50 years of focused effort, PWP has been collecting community input to determine when to complete the program and discontinue the underground surtax on our customers’ electric bills.
Beautification and reliability have been at the forefront of a multi-year Capital Improvement Program, which began in 1968 with the Underground Utility District Program, then managed by the Department of Public Works. Under this initiative, overhead utility systems — including electric cable and telephone communication lines — are relocated underground.
Before the city begins work, all affected property owners are notified. The city then installs underground vaults, transformers, conduit, drainage systems, and primary and secondary cables in the designated zone. Once complete, the city connects each property to the underground system and coordinates with telephone, cable and other utility providers to relocate their lines underground. Once the overhead lines are removed, PWP removes utility poles and completes street repairs.
Construction in the public right-of-way for the two current undergrounding projects has been completed. PWP has finished placing electric services underground on Hill Avenue (between Villa Street and Topeka Street). Overhead wire and pole removal is now contingent on cable and AT&T performing their undergrounding efforts. The undergrounding of electrical systems on Alpine Street (stretching from Marengo Avenue to Oak Knoll Avenue) is also almost complete. Removal of poles and overhead wires will take place after all affected property owners complete the underground conversion and connect to the underground system. Two additional Underground Utility Districts have been approved (Mountain and N. Raymond), but work has been suspended on these projects pending a decision on the future of the Underground Utility District Program.
The Underground Program was established with safety and reliability in mind. Placing utility lines underground protects equipment and helps reduce the chances of power outages due to windstorms, vehicle accidents, and other hazards. Undergrounding also comes with some challenges. Underground utility systems tend to have fewer unplanned outages, but when outages do occur, they take longer to locate and repair. Underground circuits are also more expensive to build and maintain.
Based on the current funding structure, the cost of undergrounding is about $90,000 per property affected — or about $10-12 million per mile — for an estimated total cost of $2 billion to complete all feasible city streets. Ongoing operation and maintenance costs for underground utility systems are paid for by electric rate funds. Compared to that of overhead systems, these costs tend to be higher.
Construction costs for the Underground Utility District Program are funded in part by an Underground Surtax, collected from all PWP electric customer bills. The Underground Surtax generates approximately $5 million per year, enough revenue to fund the construction of approximately 0.5 to 0.7 miles of construction per year. For our customers, the surtax ranges from 1.21% to 4.34% of the total electrical charges depending on your monthly electric bill as follows
First $1,000 of monthly bill 4.34%
Next $4,000 of monthly bill 3.70%
Next $20,000 of monthly bill 2.47%
Over $25,000 of monthly bill 1.21%
For a typical 500 kwh-per-month residential customer, the Underground Surtax is about $44 per year.
Street Selection and Timeline
All Underground Surtax revenue to date has been used for Category I streets, which are classified as heavily used arterial and collector streets with a concentration of power lines, and streets near civic areas, city landmarks and public recreation areas. Category I streets are scheduled to be completed first. Once Category I streets are completed, the Underground Utility Districts Program would then move on to Category II, which includes residential streets, alleys and feasible rear-property easements. The rest of the streets in Pasadena have been determined as not ideal for construction, for several reasons including construction and maintenance costs.