Council seeks evaluation for cost of undergrounding

City officials are looking for ways to make utility undergrounding and street lighting in Laguna Beach more efficient and less expensive.

The City Council voted unanimously Sept. 5 to request proposals from consultants to evaluate the advantages in time and money of a citywide rather than piecemeal undergrounding project, with or without Laguna Canyon Road.

"This is economy of scale," said Arnold Hano, who has lobbied for citywide undergrounding. "The project is going to cost a phenomenal amount of money.

"It may be $125 million. It may be $200 million. This is a problem and I expect your consultant will be an expert in looking into the cost factors."

Approximately 40% of the city's 10,900 electric meters are already underground, according to Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

SDG&E; has served South Laguna since before it was annexed. Edison serves the rest of Laguna.

"Some neighborhoods are ready to go forth," said Councilwoman Toni Iseman. "They would rather pay themselves than wait for the big umbrella and be part of a big argument."

The consultant would be expected to assess funding options for a citywide project. These could include an assessment district, special voter-approved tax, grants or general obligation bonds.

A way to compensate neighborhoods that have already paid for undergrounding must be addressed, according to the request for proposals.

Hano said the amount of time taken to complete undergrounding projects drives up the costs. He cited stories about projects taking 30 or 40 years in some cities.

For starters, Hano said the city should lean on Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to provide the maps of utility facilities, as requested in July by Councilman Bob Whalen.

"It is bothersome that they haven't responded," Whalen said. "They provide the service; they ought to be able to tell us where the facilities are."

Whalen suggested that agreements with the utilities probably give the city some leverage to get what has been requested.

The council also is seeking a consultant to evaluate the costs and long-term savings of acquiring street lights from Edison. SDG&E; had no program to sell the lights it owns south of Aliso Creek, said Public Works Director Steve May.

Potential lighting acquisition was originally included in the request for proposals from consultants for the citywide undergrounding project, but was separated by the council on a unanimous vote.

"Different expertise is needed," May said.

The evaluation of the acquisition would include an estimate of the value of the lights, which would determine the amount the city would have to pay for them, the possibility of getting a long-term maintenance contract, and an evaluation of costs and savings for converting to LED lighting.

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