Steam tunnel work is months behind schedule, city is told

Trigen expects downtown streets to remain bumpy for a while

September 28, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

Almost five months ago, the company that operates the steam tunnels that snake beneath Baltimore pledged a $6.6 million upgrade to its system - an effort that officials said would smooth the bumpy ride motorists face downtown.

But now, the company, Trigen, is months behind schedule, and the cost of the project is beginning to exceed estimates, utility officials told the city yesterday. That means some roads - specifically Baltimore and Saratoga streets - will remain rough for at least a few more months.

Required traffic planning and unexpected streetcar tracks found just below the surface of the asphalt are to blame for the holdup, Trigen officials told the city's Board of Estimates yesterday. Now, work on Baltimore Street, from Eutaw Street to Guilford Avenue, is expected to begin Monday and last through Dec. 1.

Work on Saratoga Street, from Pearl Street to Park Avenue, will start in April and continue to Oct. 1 next year.

"Opening up this much street in an active city is unusual," said Lance Ahearn, the company's chief executive officer. "Nevertheless ... we're committed to completing this work."

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 is several feet below the surface. But city officials say steam leaks from Trigen's pipes and is mangling the asphalt on downtown streets.

In May, the company agreed to overhaul its system. Work on Baltimore Street was originally expected to wrap up this fall. Instead, a large portion has yet to begin.

"For years, we've struggled with how to do a better job on maintaining this difficult underground utility," said First Deputy Mayor Michael Enright. "For some good reasons, things have slipped."

Trigen proposes excavating the area around its steam lines. The company will check for cracks and apply new insulation, and the city will repave the roadway. Along Saratoga, Trigen will convert to a high-pressure pipe, which tends to be hotter and drier.

"Everybody will be relieved to know that their heads will soon no longer bounce against the top of their cars," Mayor Martin O'Malley said.

Ahearn blamed the delay in part on a complex traffic plan that was required before work could begin.

Trigen officials said they excavated a two-block section of pipe that runs along Baltimore Street from Guilford Avenue to Gay Street this year. The pipe, which was buried in 1929, had no leaks.

Yesterday, the Board of Estimates also unanimously approved a plan to lease 48 acres of University of Baltimore land in Mount Washington to create a new city park.

Unveiled last week by O'Malley, the $6.2 million plan was criticized by Comptroller Joan M. Pratt because she said she did not have time to study the tentative 80-year lease. Yesterday, Pratt said she had been briefed on the proposal and now supports it.

Under a complicated arrangement, the city will pay the university $6.2 million, spread over the next five years, to lease the park for 50 years. The additional 30 years will cost $2. The deal still needs approval from the state Board of Public Works.

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