The Long Beach City Council has requested an examination of utility wires in the city to determine if they pose safety and maintenance issues to the community. City Manager Patrick West has tasked the public works department to report back to the council in 60 days on the feasibility of conducting an audit of the utility wires.

The item was proposed by 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price and cosponsored by Councilmembers Daryl Supernaw (4th District) and Al Austin (8th District).

“Drive or walk down any street in Long Beach and you’ll see utility wires running up and down, crisscrossing streets, alleys, and over residences,” Price stated in a press release. “Often, you’ll see these wires wrapped in bundles, hanging from telephone poles, or tied to other wires. Additionally, sometimes these wires are tangled among tree branches, or appear in disrepair, and have been left when a previous business or residential tenant moved.”

Wires hang from this utility pole located across the street from Gallagher’s Pub & Grill on East Broadway. Such wires can pose safety concerns to the neighborhood, including increased risk of fire. High winds are more likely to disconnect poorly maintained wires and down power lines, resulting in damage to private property. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Pierce Nahigyan)

Price went on to request that the city “resolve some of these issues by working with our utility providers and state agencies” to reduce possible maintenance issues that could cause fires, service interruptions, property damage and visual blight to the community.

Such an examination is already being carried out by individual resident groups, Price said at the November 13 city council meeting, but their volunteer time and expertise is limited. Price took a moment to acknowledge the Belmont Heights Community Association for taking a leadership role “in bringing this issue to light.”

Price said that a more comprehensive evaluation could be conducted by the city in its major and minor corridors to assess maintenance issues. She then alluded to the Camp and Woolsey fires that are currently spreading across the state as an example of the danger that untended wires can pose to the community. “If we have ways to identify fire risks such as abandoned wires in areas that can cause fires, we should be addressing those and addressing them as a public safety and public health issue,” she said.

Electrical utilities have been faulted for recent California fires. Earlier this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection declared that utility lines and poles owned by Pacific Gas & Electric were to blame for several major Northern California wildfires. This month, a lawsuit also accused PG&E of being at fault for the deadly Camp Fire, though the cause remains under investigation.

Director of Public Works Craig Beck told the Business Journal that he and his staff must assess a number of factors, such as jurisdiction (some utility wires are located on private property), how the city might enforce maintenance on whatever issues it discovers and what the effort will cost.

Above-ground utility wires are located throughout Long Beach’s 51 square miles, leading Beck to predict that an audit would take much longer than 60 days to complete.

Another challenge of the potential audit would be determining who owns which wires. Beck named Southern California Edison, Frontier Communications, Nextel and Spectrum as major utility companies with infrastructure in the area.

When asked about the possibility of transitioning Long Beach’s utility wires underground, Beck responded that the city just completed such a project along the Willow Street corridor. “It’s a major expense, a major undertaking,” he said, and not as simple as just digging a trench in the street and stowing wires underground.

As an example, Beck said that undertaking such a project in the 5th District would be difficult, as there are more utility lines located behind houses on private property. For now, Beck and his department are focused on their main goal: “We will be working diligently to pull all this data together and provide a comprehensive report back to council to help inform the next steps,” he said.