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Posted on September 26, 2012

Napa County: Underground Power Lines to Make Wine Country Highway Even More Beautiful

By David Kligman

ST. HELENA—Take a drive on the two-lane Highway 29 in the heart of Napa Valley Wine Country and it’s easy to fall in love with a region that draws tourists from around the world.

Napa trenching

PG&E is trenching an eight-mile stretch of Highway 29 along a scenic route of vineyards, wineries and fine dining restaurants. The work is in preparation for moving overhead power underground and adding a needed turn lane to the roadway. (Photos by David Kligman.)

Sunny skies, lush vineyards, quaint lodges and world-class wineries and restaurants.

What’s not to like?

And soon the scenery will become even more picturesque, thanks to PG&E’s participation in a massive highway project—20 years in the works—that will move eight total miles of overheard electric utility lines underground. The area begins at Mee Lane just outside Rutherford in unincorporated Napa County and extends to Charter Oak Avenue near St. Helena, about four miles. The remaining lines are among adjacent roads and driveways.

“To get all the stuff underground is really going to have an impact on the natural beauty here,” said Bob Torres, an executive with Trinchero Family Estates wineries, including Sutter Home Winery along Highway 29. “It really is going to make a huge difference—not just for the people of the community but definitely for the people who come to visit Napa Valley.”

Project largest of its kind for PG&E

Moving power underground, known at PG&E as Rule 20A, isn’t easy and not all that common, mostly due to the high cost involved. In fact, this is the utility’s largest project of its kind in terms of cost and size. Rule 20A are credits from an electric tariff that PG&E provides to counties and cities based on the number of overhead and underground feed electric meters. Those credits can then be used for putting electric equipment underground.

Napa trenching

Construction workers contracting with PG&E backfill sand into one of 160 8-foot-deep underground manholes, each big enough to accommodate a concrete box for underground electrical conduit.

“They’re kind of like frequent flyer miles. That’s what I tell people,” said PG&E government relations representative Justin Real.

The project stalled for years due to land negotiations but resumed when Napa County and the city of St. Helena collaborated to combine their credits.

Caltrans asked PG&E to take the lead for trenching the roadway. The utility also will move its gas main. After PG&E completes its work, Comcast and AT&T will move their facilities underground as well.

Once PG&E, Comcast and AT&T have completed their work, Caltrans will widen the highway to add a center turning lane, allowing motorists to more easily and safely make a left-hand turn.

Added highway turn lane to ease frustrations

Though that portion of the project won’t be completed until 2016, Torres said he’s looking forward to Caltrans alleviating the maddening effort it takes to turn left off the highway.

Saint Helena project location map“Right now, you have to have one eye on oncoming traffic and the other eye on your rearview mirror because you’re literally stopped on the highway,” he said.

It’s a project that requires an incredible amount of coordination. Every month, PG&E meets with representatives from AT&T, Comcast, the city of St. Helena, Napa County and elected officials to account for everything from roadside safety messages to notifying customers of the work.

What makes the project so challenging is that the work is happening on the two-lane portion of Highway 29 that already slows to a crawl, even on weekdays. To accommodate, PG&E will keep both lanes of traffic open during the fall grape harvest popular with tourists and then will work nights for about three months this winter.

PG&E and the other players also want to make sure tourists understand that Napa Valley remains open for business.

Collaboration with city, county officials on customer communications

Their message is that any short-term inconvenience will be worth it in the long run.

Napa trenching

The project requires an incredible amount of coordination, which is why PG&E meets regularly with other officials on logistics big and small (pictured: PG&E senior land technician Rick Peters shows project designs to construction contractors Rick McLaughlin and Chris Chell).

“The community wants the outcome but they don’t relish the disruption, especially when you have a direct consumer-based economy,” said Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon, a longtime champion of the project. “Having interruption in how visitors can get here is not a good thing, but we have to take the long view and that’s what folks are doing.”

PG&E’s outreach to impacted residents reflects a new approach to such projects, including a close collaboration with the city of St. Helena and Napa County officials on letters, “door hangers,” recorded voice messages and other communications.

“The goal is to show customers that these projects are a partnership between PG&E and the city and county,” said Austin Sharp, a PG&E customer impact outreach specialist.

Solving the bottleneck traffic will be an extraordinary improvement. But just as dramatic, Real said, will be the ability to see the majestic Mount St. Helena, currently partially obstructed by power poles.

“Two or three years ago one county official told me, ‘We envision finally being able to see Mount St. Helena when driving into St. Helena,’” Real said. “Aesthetically, all you’ll see will be trees looking up into the beautiful Mount St. Helena with snowcap on it.”

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