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Depoling Palo Alto

By Loren Stein

BITER WAS FIRST alerted to the revolution sweeping over the neighborhood when Palo Alto utility workers began spraying bright-orange fluorescent paint on the curb directly in front of the house. This, we were told, marked the spot where the city was going to tunnel underground and bury our very own private power hookup, replete with electrical, fiber optic, telephone and cable TV lines--in essence, the lifeline to our vital juices.

Cool, we thought, until we learned what was really involved: a lot of money, ripping up our property and one big, fat headache.

Our district turns out to be No. 38 among maybe 100 others in the slow, inexorable crawl toward modernity in Palo Alto--a quiet crusade to rid the city of all unsightly overhead wires and antiquated telephone poles. With characteristic foresight and high-mindedness--and the added charm that Palo Alto owns its own utilities--city officials embarked on the ambitious "100-year" undergrounding project in 1965, with the blessing of most locals.

But it'll hardly be a cinch. Each district's reconfiguring, involving roughly 250 homes, takes a year to engineer and design and some two years to construct, including haggling with the phone companies, property owners and the county--not to mention residents slugging it out with greedy contractors. At that rate, city officials estimate it'll take another 70 years or more before Palo Alto reaches the finish line. The cost? About $1.2 million per mile (paid for primarily by businesses and, to a lesser degree, residents in the form of adjusted utility rates).

As the lucky owners of a telephone pole that dominates our backyard, with crisscrossing black electrical wires slung over our property at a crazy diagonal angle, we were delighted at the prospect of the pole being retired to the old pole farm. Once we started fixating on the wires and poles all around us, we couldn't help but think, boy, these things are truly an eyesore. And how primitive! It's a solution to the communication and power distribution problem out of the 1880s or something (which, of course, it is).

But here's the hitch: while the city will dig down and install each house's new power hookup, the individual property owners are responsible for connecting their electrical meter to it, which can set them back anywhere from $2,500 to well, you name it. And in most cases, it means digging up gardens or driveways to do it. And we have to do it. One property owner can't pull a Waco and hold out on the others.

For Biter, this has been a major conundrum, taking the shine off of the whole scheme. Every contractor offers up its own ingenious solution, all of which hurt: spending thousands to dig and repave a deep trench in our driveway (maybe hurting the roots of a neighbor's tree) or one across our front garden (maybe hurting another neighbor's tree). Or the easiest solution: putting a big, ugly gray box on the front of the house. But we wonder, Isn't this all about improving aesthetics as well as the environment?

Even when the undergrounding is finally done in sunny Palo Alto, it won't all be a bed of roses. Although overhead power lines can come down in a storm, it's easy to eyeball where the exact location of the problem is. The buried waterproofed conduits have a longer life but are more susceptible to outages in heat waves. And if there's an earthquake or some other calamity, city workers, with only a rough guess as to where the failure is, will have to painstakingly search through the hidden lines.

As for us, when the best plan is agreed upon, the work is done and the pain is behind us, Biter's guess is we won't look back. We'll recline in our lawn chair sipping a Cosmopolitan and say, Look at all those poor schnooks with their telephone poles in their backyards. How gauche! How retro! Now, this is living.

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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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