Why the Streets Department doesn’t put utility boxes underground

One reaction people had to Monday’s post on the artfully-decorated utility boxes in Washington Square West and Queen Village was that the dressed up boxes look nicer now, but why do they have to be on the street in the first place?

A reader recalled a conversation with a technician who was working on one of the boxes:

“I asked the technician why these things couldn’t be installed underground, and he said they totally could, if someone wanted to do it that way. They aren’t that old. They just started popping up without any warning.”

I reached out to Richard Montanez, the Chief Traffic Engineer at the Streets Department, for some perspective on the options.

“Well historically, they’ve always been above-ground,” he said,”They’ve never been in a manhole or anything like that.”

Would it be possible to install them underground, though?

“I mean, nothing’s impossible, but they’re not underground–nobody manufactures ones that goes underground,” he said, “Think about trying to put a computer and all the electronics underground. It has to be able to take all the elements and everything. They would probably cost an astronomical amount of money per intersection to put them underground. Remember, nobody makes one right now. Every city you go to they put the traffic controllers above ground.”

The utility boxes maintained by Streets are all traffic control boxes, Montanez told me. There are also utility boxes maintained by other organizations.

“You’d have to talk to Verizon, or PGW, or PECO, to talk about their own. The ones that [U Arts students are] wrapping are traffic control boxes,” he said.

We put some calls in to those companies to inquire about their practices, and will update if we hear anything different from them.

It does seem like there are an awful lot of cities dealing with the ugliness factor though. A commenter pointed us to a similar effort, Art Box Project, in San Jose and some follow-on Googling led me to a whole trove of examples of people doing this in other places. So for the time being, until someone identifies a cost-effective underground option, it’s time to get wrapping U Arts students!


WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal