County OKs underground utilities for Diamond Parkway

By From page A1 | February 21, 2014

A 4-1 majority of county supervisors created the Diamond Springs Parkway Underground Utility District Feb. 4. More precisely, the board passed a resolution that allows for formation of the district. The California Public Utilities Commission established tariff programs in 1967 whereby private companies such as PG&E and AT&T set aside funds exclusively for the purpose of “undergrounding” electric and telecommunications facilities in the future.

Known as Electric Rule 20 (A, B or C) for PG&E and Telecommunications Rule 32, the program uses money collected over time in small amounts by the companies for projects in their service areas. Specifically, Rule 20A applies to public service projects proposed and overseen by counties or municipalities. Under that element of the rule, typically, the utilities firms cover most, if not all, of the costs associated with an undergrounding project. The B and C elements are either developer funded (larger projects) or paid for by individuals on a small project.

The county’s resolution identifies the public benefit of the proposed project according to CPUC guidelines.

1. The project “will avoid or eliminate an unusually heavy concentration of overhead electric facilities.”

2. “The street road or right of way is extensively used by the general public and carries a heavy volume of pedestrian or vehicular traffic.”

3. The street, road or right of way meets the definitions in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research General Plan Guidelines as an “arterial street or major collector.”

Overhead utility poles and lines have been determined to be potential roadside hazards, subject to heavy weather events, falling trees, collision and may be considered a visual blight on the environment. Although it was not included in the county Department of Transportation documents, Rule 20A on the PG&E Website shows a fourth condition for undergrounding.

“The street, 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.”

Phase 1A of the project will run north from the intersection of Highway 49 and Pleasant Valley Road in Diamond Springs. Officially referred to as Diamond Road in the project description, the average motorist probably would not recognize the stretch as distinct from Highway 49. With the utilities district now in place, Phase 1A is projected to begin in 2015. The next, Phase 1B/2 will be constructed in 2018, according to DOT.

“It is anticipated that all utility relocation work as part of the district will be completed by 2020. The county will act as the lead trench agent and coordinate the design work with the utility companies involved,” the DOT material reads. “The county will obtain rights of entry from the property owners for the service connection work on private property and acquire a designated public utility easement for the joint trench adjacent to Diamond Road and along the proposed Diamond Springs Parkway. The proposed district will connect with an existing underground district on Missouri Flat Road.”

Deputy Director for Engineering Matt Smeltzer gave the DOT presentation to the board and later e-mailed more detailed information to the Mountain Democrat.

“It was great getting the UUD Resolution approved by the Board,” Smeltzer’s discussion began. “The district is established for the boundaries for which the underground rules and funds will be applied. A district is first proposed by a public agency or community group. The requester for the district then goes to the overhead utility companies, PG&E and AT&T, and requests their input and support of the feasibility and eligibility of the area to participate in the underground programs.”

Issues to be considered in the determination include the relative permanence of the project. “Is there a benefit to the investment and will it be there undisturbed for a long time?” for example. “We wouldn’t want to invest in undergrounding in an area where roads will move in the near future (or there might be) other potential future conflicts for the underground conduits. When a district is established, all future utilities within those boundaries must be placed underground also. So therefore the district sets the boundaries for which the rules are applied.”

He noted a significant limitation to undergrounding as well, that is high-voltage transmission lines cannot be located underground.

Supervisor Ron Mikulaco proposed another limitation, that tribal funds from the Red Hawk Casino should not be used for that project.

The budget set for the project is $6.37 milion, the bulk of which would be paid by PG&E, AT&T and Comcast. The county’s share is $473,000, and the documents note that the county would use Traffic Impact Mitigation fees, the Missouri Flat Master Circulation & Funding Plan and local tribe funds to cover its share.

Mikulaco’s interpretation of the Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe suggests that the funds should be used to alleviate traffic problems directly related to the casino.

“Underground utilities,” Mikulaco sneered. “This is ludicrous to me. How does it mitigate casino traffic impacts?”

Later he reiterated that the tribal money was intended to offset the casino’s impact and quipped, “Most of the cars head west (from the casino), but most of the money heads east.” His was the “no” vote on the board’s action.

Shingle Springs resident Lori Parlin had challenged the use of tribal funds earlier in the discussion. “That money was intended to mitigate the impact of the casino,” she said. “Diamond Springs is not as impacted as Shingle Springs. We wanted underground utilities too, and we want some of that money.”

Sue Taylor recalled a plan to underground the utilities along Main Street in Diamond Springs. “Now suddenly it’s going to a new project … Shingle Springs gets nothing to mitigate the actual impact. Everyone seems more interested in Diamond Springs than Shingle Springs mitigation,” she said.

Speaking of the overall project, that is the utilities district, road construction and retail development, Supervisor Ron Briggs said, “The county has always wanted (sales tax) revenue to keep people from going down the hill. I’d like underground utilities in Shingle Springs, but no one has proposed anything, (by comparison, the issue for Diamond Springs) has been before us many times.”

DOT documents note that an alternative project, to move the overhead lines to other locations, was considered less practicable and less effective.  “(It would) be a complex effort and require considerable tree and brush removal that would significantly impact the adjacent residential properties on Diamond Road.”

For those reasons, among others, the utility companies, Caltrans and the county DOT “proposed the formation of a district within the limits of the project.”

Chris Daley

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