As general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly Jr. oversees 2,300 employees and an $850 million operating budget. SFPUC is California’s 3rd-largest public utility.
He’s near the end of a massive, $4.6 billion mega-program of 81 projects to update and seismically retrofit drinking water assets. It was one of the largest water-infrastructure upgrades in the U.S., and spawned engineering innovations such as a “floating” water transmission line designed to survive up to 6.5 feet of displacement during an earthquake.
Because SFPUC is a wholesale provider, costs of the water-asset program were defrayed across the utility’s 2.6 billion customers. But now his team’s moving on to sewer assets, some of which were installed during the Gold Rush. This is an estimated $7 billion bill that San Franciscans alone will have to pay for.
His tip for making that program as successful: focus on economic inclusion for everyone.
“After decades of working on large infrastructure projects, I’ve learned we’ll be more successful on project delivery if we create job and business opportunities,” he says. “If we include the widest set of residents and businesses, they’re invested in our success and will be stewards of our system into the future.”
SFPUC was the first U.S. utility to establish an Environmental Justice Policy (2009) and Community Benefits Policy (2011) to ensure major projects incorporate the concerns, feedback, and goals of residents and businesses in neighborhoods affected by capital plans.
The utility’s using this framework to inform planning and design for one of the largest Sewer System Improvement Projects: rebuilding the facility that treats 80% of San Francisco’s wastewater. The $2 billion project is in the heart of a low-income, disadvantaged neighborhood.
“We want to set the standard in our city and across the country that public works projects are important to our core operations—but that we can also undertake these investments in a way that is innovative, and can be leveraged to create meaningful impacts in the community and for the local economy.”