Saying it's time to put the struggling city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works on the agenda in the mayor's race, state Rep. Dwight Evans has introduced legislation allowing the state Public Utility Commission to effectively take control of PGW.

"We just aren't seeing the leadership we need on this problem," Evans said yesterday. "It seems clear the city doesn't have the capacity to fix PGW, and right now the state doesn't have the authority. My bill is a bridge to addressing this problem."

If approved by the Legislature, Evans said, the measure would allow the PUC to order a sale of PGW or a merger of PGW with a stronger utility, such as Peco Energy.

Currently, the PUC has authority over PGW rate requests, but its management remains in city hands.

Evans is one of five prominent Democrats who've made it clear they're running in the May 15 mayoral primary.

In a report on financial challenges awaiting the next mayor, the state board monitoring the city's finances called PGW a "simmering crisis" and said the utility could "face a financial collapse that would have ramifications for the entire region."

PGW has a poor customer base and aging pipes, and is $1 billion in debt. The utility is proposing its biggest rate increase ever, a total of $100 million, or about $156 a year for a typical residential heating customer.

Evans said the increase is an unacceptable burden on PGW's struggling customers.

"You know, we've worked to raise the minimum wage and to lift people out of poverty, and then we have policies like this rate hike that push them right back in," Evans said.

Evans said PGW needs a larger customer base and an infusion of outside money to repair its aging infrastructure.

Peco executives have reacted coolly to the idea of a merger with PGW.

Mayor Street's spokesman, Joe Grace, said that the administration would look at Evans' idea but that "state takeovers of other city agencies, like the Philadelphia Parking Authority, haven't worked out that well for the city."

Grace noted the city is seeking a financial adviser to consider opportunities for the sale of PGW.

A PGW spokesman, Doug Oliver, said PGW is always open to ideas to solve its problems. *