Effects of electrical fire linger downtown

Power is fully restored, but unsynchronized lights continue to tie up traffic

September 22, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Utility crews continued to toil underground yesterday, but City Hall staff and thousands of office workers were back on the job, one day after an electrical fire below Baltimore streets shut down power and businesses in part of downtown.

With power restored but traffic signals still unsynchronized, commuters endured delays. City officials warn that more of the same can be expected all week, as the slow process of manually retiming the lights is completed.

"We're just asking motorists to please bear with us," said David Brown, a spokesman for the city Transportation Department. "We're working as fast as we can to get things up and running."

An electrical fire broke out early Monday below the street near City Hall, at the intersection of Guilford Avenue and Fayette Street, darkening offices and traffic lights for 25 square blocks.

Power was restored to most of the buildings by 3:20 p.m. Monday. The lights went on at the last two - City Hall and the Municipal Employees Credit Union building - by 6 a.m. yesterday.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation and might never be determined, said Linda Foy, spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric.

"The problem is, so much of the system was destroyed," Foy said. "The damage was catastrophic."

Crews are working to restore the normal level of "redundancy," or backup system, that keeps electricity flowing when problems arise, Foy said.

"We're still focusing on bringing that system up to the former level," Foy said. "That is our primary focus."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said it was business as usual yesterday at City Hall, although Internet service was slow.

"I'm very happy with how quickly BGE worked," O'Malley said. "It went very smoothly."

About 1,000 city staffers, more than 1,400 state employees and thousands of private office workers were sent home Monday. The city and state workers were given the day off with pay, as they are during severe weather and other emergencies that shut down their workplaces, officials said.

That cost the state $242,000, state officials estimated. The city has not determined the cost of idling its workers or responding to the emergency, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley.

The outage affected about 180 traffic lights at 30 intersections between Monument Street on the north, Baltimore Street on the south, Fallsway on the east and Charles Street on the west, Brown said. Crews were synchronizing the signals, but the work was slow because the timing of each light has to be reset manually, Brown said.

The city has been replacing that 1970s signal technology with a system that will enable all of the lights to be synchronized centrally by computer, Brown said. But that system has not been installed at lights in the City Hall area, and will not be in place citywide until the end of next year.

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