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Broad Street undergrounding in Nevada City gets funding

A Nevada City utility undergrounding project nearly a decade in the making can now move forward with funding from the county.

Nevada County supervisors on Tuesday voted to transfer $500,000 in Rule 20A credits to Nevada City, allowing the $1.2 million project to proceed after two previous attempts lacked capital.

Under the California Public Utility Commission’s Rule 20A program, utility companies set aside $1 per month charged to customers to help fund a portion of undergrounding projects that reduce fire danger and service interruptions.

Nevada City will borrow from five years of future Rule 20A credits to complete the project. According to a PG&E report, over the last 14 years Grass Valley, Nevada City and Nevada County have averaged $60,493, $26,106 and $466,141, respectively, in annual funds.

According to Nevada City Engineer Bryan McAlister, with plans already designed from previous attempts, the project could be put to bid in February and completed within the year.

“Nevada City has definitely had issues on East Broad and West Broad and requested undergrounding for years, and we just haven’t been able to move forward,“ Nevada City Mayor Erin Minett told the board. ”It’s a benefit to the city, it’s a benefit to the (county) government building, and to the surrounding residents.“

The lack of underground power lines in Nevada City led PG&E this year to cut more than 250 trees in order to safely re-energize parts of downtown during a Public Safety Power Shut-off. The large-scale mitigation effort provoked protests, tree sittings and arrests before a compromise was reached with activists.

But just as wildfire risk and possible PSPS spells have increased the need for undergrounding, the costs, too, have grown.

According to County Public Works Director Trisha Tillotson, the county’s most recent undergrounding project at Combie and Magnolia roads cost the county more than $5 million per mile. The project was completed in September 2019 ( beginning in the 1990s) but the county had to send a letter of complaint to the utilities commission before PG&E eventually paid its share of the costs.

PG&E representatives have said increased costs are why undergrounding in Nevada City has been delayed, and the more time has gone by, the higher costs have grown.

An audit last year found the company diverted more than $120 million away from the program, which increased wait times and costs.

Tillotson said changes to the program planned for next year could also phase out funding for jurisdictions without active projects. That would eliminate about $10 million in funding from Nevada County over the next decade, which currently has no projects planned.

The county will meet with PG&E officials to find and prioritize undergrounding opportunities, Tillotson said.

Councilman Doug Fleming last week floated the idea of a bond issuance to the City Council to help pay for future undergrounding projects encompassing all of downtown.

“I know that’s a big lift in these days and ages,“ Fleming said. ”But once we get through this project and see that it’s successful, we can look at something like that to do the rest of downtown.“

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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