For Baltimore, a reminder of what lies beneath

Miles of wiring, water mains and a century-old sewage system keep city running

Underground Fire In City

September 21, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Living in the city can be challenging enough when dealing with the problems on Baltimore's streets. Now city dwellers, especially downtown, are increasingly faced with worrying about what's going on under their streets.

The power outage yesterday, and the ensuing inconveniences, are vivid reminders of how what passes underground - especially water, sewage and electricity - can be more critical to the orderly functioning of a city than its moving parts above ground.

The underground fire at Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue blew out four 13,000-volt power lines that left 12 buildings without electricity, phone lines and e-mail, forcing 117 businesses - 45 percent of all downtown companies - to shut down, according to the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's newspaper mistakenly stated when a sinkhole in Mount Vernon in downtown Baltimore would be repaired. At best, the sewer break on Cathedral Street could be fixed at the end of October, with the street reopened in November. City officials said in the worst case, work would not be completed until the end of this year.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"Our e-mail was out, which is sort of like having your left arm cut off," said Mike Evitts, a Downtown Partnership spokesman. "It is a major inconvenience."

But, Evitts added, residents and business owners who choose to live and work downtown fully expect a "diverse, energetic and unpredictable" environment.

Evident every day are typical urban ills - potholes, congestion and wailing sirens.

Less obvious is a subterranean infrastructure where malfunctions - caused by age or accident - can drastically interrupt the lives of downtown residents and workers.

In July, a 10-foot sinkhole opened on Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon. It is expected to keep that road closed between Monument and Centre Streets until, at best, the end of this month, according to Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.

Last month, the headquarters of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was closed, sending 2,000 employees home, after a 10-inch-wide, 30-year-old water main cracked.

The city has as much to manage below ground with public utility crews as it does on the surface with public safety and sanitation workers. City crews maintain 3,400 miles of water and 3,100 miles of sanitary mains, with 16,000 manholes for access. The city's sewage system, which is more than a century old in places, is under a $900 million federally mandated order to upgrade.

The city also must maintain another underground highway system of electricity, cable, telephone, street light and fiber-optic lines. All of those utility lines - more than 10 million linear feet total - are threaded beneath the city through 3.7 million feet of conduits. That conduit system is accessible by another 14,000 manholes, said Richard Baker, an engineering supervisor for the city's Department of Transportation.

The fire that started early Monday blew two manhole covers 50 feet into the air, revealing the approximately 12-foot descent down a ladder into a roughly 6-by-12-foot room where workers can reach the bundles of wires.

Users of this conduit - Comcast, AT&T, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. - pay the city rent for the space their wires and cables run through.

In the room where the fire occurred, six main BGE power lines (as thick as two-liter soda bottles) and dozens of secondary lines (as thick as soda cans) run through one wall and out the other.

BGE technicians were planning to work through the night to determine what caused the fire and how long it would take to repair the four damaged main lines.

Above ground, traffic was likely to be clogged again this morning, but power was expected to be restored at City Hall.

Still, downtown residents and businesses will endure, Evitts said, just as they did after the CSX train derailment and fire in the Howard Street tunnel in July 2001, when a water main also broke and power went out.

Steve Johnson, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said most city residents expect such inconveniences.

While some say sinkholes and power outages are absurd and shouldn't happen, he said, "others think it's just part of living in the city."

After all, he added, "Nothing lasts forever."

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