San Franciscans at every level — from individual homeowners to neighborhood groups to public safety advocates and city officials — have been complaining for years about how slowly Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been moving its overhead power lines underground. The case for undergrounding is clear and indisputable: buried wires are not only far more aesthetically pleasing, they're far safer, particularly during earthquakes, when wires hanging over streets can snap, start fires, cause electrocutions, and generally be a real menace.
But PG&E won't pay for the full cost of undergrounding. So wealthy neighborhoods where property owners have agreed to cough up a few thousand dollars each get their wires buried, and the rest of the city waits. There's a city fund to help underwrite the cost in other parts of town, but it's never been a big fund, and now it's out of money. The Utility Undergrounding Task Force is preparing to ask the supervisors to add a modest 5 percent tax on every electric bill in the city to pay for moving 490 miles of wires under the streets.
The tax isn't going to bankrupt anyone — for most residential users, we're talking about a couple of dollars a month. But the whole idea strikes us as backward thinking: Why should city residents and businesses pay a private utility to do something that it ought to be required to do on its own? Why is the city even talking about taxing residents to subsidize PG&E when the company is already operating an illegal monopoly in town — and when the very mention of the Raker Act, the federal law that requires the city to run a public power system, ought to be enough to get the utility to fall into line and pay its own undergrounding bills?
And why are we talking about putting a bandage on a system that doesn't work when a concerted effort at bringing public power to San Francisco — now, not later — would make the entire discussion unnecessary? After all, any credible economic analysis will show that public power would bring so many hundreds of millions of dollars into the city that minor irritants like burying power lines wouldn't cost the taxpayers an additional penny.
We fully recognize that the battle for public power has never been and never will be easy. PG&E just spent upward of $10 million to defeat a public power plan in Davis, and that service area is far smaller than San Francisco. The company informed Mayor Gavin Newsom this fall that it will fight bitterly any municipalization effort. And there's no giant pot of pro–public power money out there to finance a campaign.
But with the mayor, the head of the Public Utilities Commission, the city attorney, and two-thirds of the supervisors saying they support public power, it seems crazy to simply accept that the city is stuck under PG&E's thumb for the foreseeable future (and that basic public safety amenities like buried power lines have to be paid for out of tax dollars). If Newsom is serious about this, he needs to step up and offer a public power plan — and if he doesn't, the supervisors need to. And let's not talk about higher utility taxes until they do. SFBG