Ryan McDonald

City to consider undergrounding on PCH

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by Ryan McDonald

Undergrounding the remaining utilities on poles on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach was unanimously approved for study by the City Council Tuesday night. The study will look for ways to surmount a roughly $1 million shortfall to pay for the project.

The proposal involves undergrounding overhead utilities from Artesia Boulevard to Aviation Boulevard on the east side of the highway, and from approximately 17th Street through 21st Street on the west. Utilities along the remainder of PCH in the city are already underground.

Council members approved the plan with a nod to its numerous possible benefits, including improving pedestrian access along the busy commercial corridor, and bettering vistas by removing wires and poles. “This is an investment that will pay dividends well into the future,” said Mayor Jeff Duclos.

But, under the financing scheme tentatively proposed by the city’s Public Works Department, Hermosa is well short of the money the undergrounding will require.

Tuesday’s vote directs staff to explore forming an undergrounding district under a provision of the state public utilities code known as Tariff Rule 20A. Unlike undergrounding districts in residential areas, which are typically paid for by forming assessment districts, Rule 20A projects take advantage of public funds set aside annually for cities by the investor-owned utilities. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, Rule 20A projects must meet one of four criteria to be eligible. Among them, the project is along “an arterial street or major collector” controlled by the state. PCH, known by CalTrans as State Route 1, qualifies.  

Southern California Edison earmarks about $95,000 a year for Hermosa in Rule 20A funds, according to Public Works Director Glen Kau. The city has built up a three-and-a-half year store of unused funds and is permitted to “mortgage” up to four years of future allocations. Underestimates from Edison, the proposed undergrounding will cost about $1.8 million, leaving Hermosa about $1 million short of the amount needed.

The impetus to complete the undergrounding comes from a CalTrans plan for major upgrades to State Route 1, Kau said. The CalTrans project, expected to begin in 2021 or 2022, will resurface the highway from El Segundo south to the City of Carson. Initiating the undergrounding before resurfacing reaches Hermosa, Kau said, could compound the benefits of undergrounding.

But whether that benefit is great enough to justify the outlay required is unclear. Public Works Commissioner David Grethen told the council that the city could consider focusing on particular areas within the identified stretch in order to bring down the cost.

“We do have a more than a million dollar shortfall. Can we take it the rest of the way, or is there some sort of prioritization that needs to be done?” Grethen said.

City staff said it is possible that Hermosa could lessen the cost by purchasing Rule 20A funds at a discount from other cities who have less need for the projects or are for some reason ineligible to use them.

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