Baltimore's Aging Infrastructure

April 19, 1992

Could downtown Baltimore suddenly be flooded the way Chicago was this past week? No, says the city's public works czar, George Balog, and recent history seems to prove him right. Yet an aging city like Baltimore must constantly watch its infrastructure to prevent unforeseen disasters.

The flooding that paralyzed much of Chicago's business area was caused by a car-sized hole in the concrete bed of the Chicago River. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water suddenly filled a network of underground tunnels originally used to transport freight and coal to different Loop buildings. Since these tunnels follow the street grid, water quickly flooded basements of office buildings, incapacitating electric control systems and damaging materials and merchandise stored there.

During its early history, Baltimore had frequent floods that caused economic havoc and losses of lives. To prevent them from happening, the city constructed an elaborate channel system that culminated in 1912, when the Jones Falls was confined to multi-level conduits. Occasional flash floods have occurred since then but without any damage to the downtown area. In more recent years, the city has also spent millions controlling flooding in such steams as Harris Creek, which is buried under Kenwood Avenue in East Baltimore. "We are more fortunate than other cities. We had lots of foresight here," Mr. Balog contends.

As the federal and state governments have cut their spending in recent years, infrastructure improvement in Baltimore has increasingly become the burden of the fiscally troubled city. Fortunately, new technologies have changed the way aging water and sewer systems are repaired. New early-warning systems have been developed. And instead of costly replacement, most old-time cast iron pipes these days can be cleaned and lined with cement. Replacement has become the last resort.

Baltimore City may be in a better position than Chicago. But the catastrophe in the Windy City ought to alert city officials to make doubly sure that some minor flaw in crumbling structures cannot become a major disaster here, too.

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