Under pressure, Baltimore utility to spend millions to fix pipes, iron wrinkled streets


In subterranean Baltimore, where hundreds of miles of pipe crisscross below the city's streets and sidewalks, a torrent of steam has been keeping officials hot under the collar at City Hall.

Winding through pressurized conduits on its way to heat downtown office buildings and hospitals, the steam has been slipping through cracks and manhole covers in nearby streets, transforming the asphalt into a bumpy and, some say, dangerous mess.

After a years-long dispute over who is responsible for the rough ride through many parts of downtown, Trigen, the utility's owner, announced yesterday that it will spend $6.6 million to upgrade its steam system and repave some of the most jarring roads, such as Baltimore and Saratoga streets.

"They're going to insulate the pipes much better so that the steam doesn't melt our streets," said Mayor Martin O'Malley after the agreement was announced at the city's Board of Estimates meeting.

About 240 buildings - mostly large workplaces such as the University of Maryland campus - use steam, which is forced through a 16-mile network of pipes that lies up to 15 feet below the surface. In addition to its use in radiators, hotels use steam for laundry and hospitals harness it to sterilize equipment.

But the O'Malley administration has complained that steam also has a more destructive side. Cracks and poor insulation in the distribution system allow steam to rise through fissures in the streets. The leakage heats and softens asphalt, making it more likely to buckle under the weight of heavy vehicles.

And that buckling, officials say, can lead to lumpy roads.

"Anybody going on Baltimore Street knows it's a roller-coaster ride," said First Deputy Mayor Michael Enright.

While an average city street lasts about 20 years after undergoing major reconstruction, one showered in steam can begin to deteriorate in less than five, transportation experts say. What's more, steam floating into intersections can block a driver's view. In some cases, officials have shut down steamy streets, which can further tie up traffic.

"It becomes a driving hazard and a pedestrian hazard," said Leif Dormsjo, chief of staff for the city's Department of Transportation. "It also starts to cost a lot of money in maintenance."

Cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, including Boston and New York, have faced similar problems, according to news reports. Street-level "stacks" are sometimes used to safely pipe steam above traffic and pedestrians.

Baltimore's plan is an attempt to do away with those temporary fixes and to change a long-standing practice of mending the network only when it breaks. Much of the preventive work, which Trigen expects to finish next year, should ward off future problems, company executives said.

As part of the effort, Trigen will excavate the area around its steam main along Baltimore Street, east of Guilford Avenue. The company will check for cracks, apply new insulation and repave at least two lanes. That work has begun.

In other areas, including along Saratoga Street, Trigen will convert to a high-pressure delivery system. Because high-pressure lines carry steam at a higher temperature, they are more likely to stay dry - a key factor in reducing escaping vapor.

Steam pipes range from 2 inches to 2 feet in diameter, the company said.

Fixes will also be made at a handful of busy intersections, such as along Lombard Street at Calvert Street and Market Place.

"What we've decided to do here, and in other cities, is to make the significant investments that are necessary to become part of the community," said Lance Ahearn, the company's chief executive officer. "We'd like to be here for the long term."

Each year, Trigen--Baltimore sells about 1.7 billion pounds of steam, which is produced at two plants - one in South Baltimore and the other on West Saratoga Street. The company augments its supply from the Baltimore Refuse to Energy System Co. plant, which burns tons of refuse a day to make steam.

What causes the steam to escape is open to debate. And that argument, which has raged for years, is part of the reason the system was not updated sooner. O'Malley blames Trigen for not maintaining its pipes. The company has argued that some of the excess steam is caused when city water mains leak on its conduits.

This year, City Hall gained considerable leverage in the negotiations. For starters, the company, which owns energy utilities in 10 cities, is under new ownership. Also, its franchise agreement - the multiyear contract that gives Trigen the right to access public rights of way - is up for renewal in 2009.

The company also faced pressure from Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who introduced legislation in this year's General Assembly session to regulate the utility. That would have given the state more oversight of Trigen's operations. The bill failed to pass, but Della said he would reintroduce it if need be.

But the real reason for resolution might have come in the form of a threat from City Hall. O'Malley acknowledged that the dispute was making some hot enough that officials considered taking the issue to court.

"We were on the verge of suing them for the damage they were doing to our streets," O'Malley said. "Fortunately, we were able to work this out."

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