Planning Fail: Philadelphia Has No Planning Process to Bury Power Lines

PWD replacing water mains along 2100 Kater. No inclusion of utility wires despite the fact that the entire street has been dug up.

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Though the city of Philadelphia has made marked strides in the realm of planning under the helm of Mayor Nutter, there are still quite a few thorny issues affecting Philadelphia’s public space that have not been addressed. For a perfect example, we need look no further than the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Kater Street in Graduate Hospital.

2100 Kater (and already completed 2200 Kater) has been the site of construction for months

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) identified these blocks for water main replacements along their entire stretch. This includes total street closure, demolition of the roadway, excavation of at least 8 feet of earth and replacement of curbs and the roadway once work is completed. 

Deep trenching to completely replace water mains.

Though these sections of Kater Street are completely being reconstructed, what is not being addressed is any of the electrical or telecommunications infrastructure. This is the same electrical infrastructure that creates overhead power lines that fail every time a storm comes through. This infrastructure causes PECO to maim street trees by cutting their crowns open for power line access. This infrastructure creates the need for ugly tubing and meters to be placed in plain view and cable lines to be strung over the roadway and trailed along the facades of our homes.

So why didn’t PWD work with PECO on this complete reconstruction of Kater Street to bury the power lines? The answer is anything but straightforward, but can at least partly be attributed to one reason. The City of Philadelphia appears to have no policy stance or planning guidelines for the burial of power lines, even in the case of complete block water main reconstruction.

This is misguided policy and yet was not always the case. When the City of Philadelphia and County of Philadelphia were two distinct entities, power line provisions were built into city code. This is why no power lines exist north of South Street and south of Arch Street (original city vs. county borders). Before the utility privatization wave swept Pennsylvania, arterials outside this Center City boundary buried power lines. Christian Street in Graduate Hospital is a good example of this. 

All the most scenic areas of Philadelphia have their power lines buried, and for good reason. The aesthetic concerns present unnecessary visual clutter on the street scape, both overhead and at street level with poles, dangling wires and poorly maintained cable wires courtesy of our local cable provider. Overhead power lines also add clutter directly to private property. Power source wires are run in plastic tubing and cable wires are often run next to them exposed directly on the facade of buildings. 

PECO regularly hacks trees to accommodate lines. This is ugly and significantly weakens the tree.

Engaging directly with the utility company yields few results whether you are an individual, a developer or community group. PECO maintains their power grid to bare minimum standard and seems to most commonly give four excuses for not wanting to take on power line burials:


B)Lack of skilled technicians who work underground. Most of their techs are only skilled in overhead lines. 

C)“If one street gets their power lines buried, everyone will want it.” 

D)Higher voltage lines have transformers that, due to heat dissipation concerns, are more difficult to bury.

So what can we do about it? There is a significant expense associated with burying power lines but here is some low hanging fruit city leadership can take on the issue:

1)Coordinate major water main replacement activity with PECO power line burial, phone line burial and FiOS installation with Verizon and Comcast cable burial. MOTU, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, has a coordinating role to play. So far we haven’t seen much leadership in regards to the utilities portion of their mandate. That can and should change. (This proposal addresses the Cost and “everyone will want it” arguments)

2)The Planning Commission could identify ascending priority of streets for power line burial. We already have all street typologies in Philadelphia documented and mapped. A plan from the city could help protect utilities from having to take on too much at once. Let’s start with larger arterials like Washington Ave and slowly progress street by street. It may take 30 years but if there’s no plan, it’ll never ever happen. (This proposal addresses the “everyone will want it argument.”)

3)Find a legislative solution to power line burials. Washington, DC just recently has. They are funding it with additional fees and by working constructively with local utilities. This does not include Verizon and Comcast lines. (This proposal addresses the Cost argument.)

Concerns B and D can both be addressed with training and technological investment. Unless MOTU, the Planning Commission and council members actually step up pressure on utilities and begin providing guidance on burials we’ll continue to live with power lines, though it’s 2014 and their maintenance costs continue to grow.

Below you’ll find more eyesores and poorly maintained power lines along Grays Ferry and Bainbridge. The community here has been working with PECO, so far unwilling to bury power lines. There is very little community bargaining power to enact a change like this: 

Grays Ferry & Bainbridge - Lines Everywhere

Grays Ferry & Bainbridge - Lines Everywhere

PECO so far unwilling to work with community to bury power lines.

Exposed meters are another problem we've written about here.

Last Updated: Tuesday, 08 July 2014 @ 08.46
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Written By: 
geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

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