Mapping due for city's underground Improved database will pinpoint vast network of pipes

3,000 miles of utilities

Aging infrastructure lies hidden below Baltimore's streets

November 17, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Public Works Department is planning to spend up to $20 million for a new computer mapping system to help it unravel the complex maze of water, gas and sewage pipes threading beneath the city's streets.

The Board of Estimates, a panel of top elected officials which approves most city expenditures, has already approved money to hire consultants to complete the job.

City engineers don't always know how to pinpoint the vast network of more than 3,000 miles of pipes that lies underground because the old maps of the system are often inaccurate or even missing.

"The utilities aren't always where the maps say they are," said George G. Balog, chief of the Public Works Department.

With the new computer mapping of what lies underground, city officials hope to help prevent accidents such as water main breaks.

City engineers got an eyeful of the piping network last week after a big chunk of the downtown intersection of Franklin Street and Park Avenue collapsed, resulting in a 30-foot hole. Water, sewer, gas and steam pipes were all ripped apart by a gas explosion touched off by the collapse.

Though Balog said that his department knew exactly where the intersection's pipes were before the collapse, the ensuing damage illustrates how an aging and often unknown infrastructure can beset older cities like Baltimore.

Much of the piping that accounts for the networks of sewer and water lines was laid decades ago.

Balog is putting great faith in the new mapping system to help avoid damage from water main breaks and other piping problems, he said.

Completion is projected to take about two years.

"Once all the city's infrastructure is put into a database, you won't have to worry about deterioration," Balog said.

"The cost to replace all the pipes underground would just be an astronomical number," said Charles C. Graves III, the city planning director.

So the city has prepared a course of maintenance and repair. It is still costly, Balog said.

A costly system

Baltimore will spend about $116 million this year on operating expenses and capital improvements for its network of sewer and water pipes and other infrastructure needs, according to Edward J. Gallagher, the city's budget chief.

Last year, the city spent about $82 million and the year before it spent about $85 million. City officials said more money will be spent this year because the city decided to defer maintenance to save money in past years.

Because the infrastructure maps are so unreliable, city engineers must rely on customer complaints to identify many water and sewer line problems. About 1.5 million people in a 220-square-mile area, including Baltimore and parts of the five surrounding suburban counties, get their water from the city-run network.

Calls about rusty water and low water pressure put the engineers on alert, said Kurt Kocher, public information officer for public works.

The city also sends remote-controlled cameras into pipes to take pictures of their conditions.

Engineers and inspectors are likely to find their problems exacerbated by missing and inaccurate maps in the older areas of the city, most of which is south of North Avenue, Graves said. Seventy percent of the pipes are the old cast-iron type, but the city has been gradually lining them with concrete to strengthen them. In the past decade, the city has lined about 20 percent of the aging pipes.

Deteriorating with age

The pipes in many older cities are weakened by age and corrosion, with some being about 100 years old. Cast-iron piping, widely used in the first half of the century, is more susceptible to leaks and breaks than today's more flexible, concrete-lined iron pipes.

In the past two years, nearly $1 million was spent to fix badly deteriorated sanitary sewers in parts of eastern and southwestern Baltimore.

Pumping stations at the Dundalk, Brooklyn and Quad Avenue stations are due for $3 million in improvements.

And the city is spending $1.5 million to fix pipes and install water mains near Boston Street in Canton.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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