Downtown In Disarray

As The City's Aging Infrastructure Continues To Crumble, Workers Toil Around The Clock To Repair A Water Main Break That Emptied Offices And Has Traffic Snarled

April 29, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown, Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes | Matthew Hay Brown, Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes, and and

Round-the-clock work to repair a broken downtown water main was expected to snarl the morning commute for a second day Wednesday, the latest in a series of disruptions caused by the deterioration of the city's aging infrastructure.

Lombard and Gay streets, where a rupture in the 20-inch main early Tuesday flooded downtown, were to remain closed until the completion of repairs. Work was delayed yesterday while crews pumped out water, shut down gas lines and rerouted electricity.

"Barring a miracle, this is going to last at least into [Wednesday]," said Frank J. Murphy, the acting deputy director of operations for the city Transportation Department. Officials were urging commuters to avoid the area or consider taking mass transit to work.

The break, which was reported about 6:25 a.m. Tuesday, sent torrents gushing into the streets north of the Inner Harbor, shutting down water, electricity, telephone and Internet service and forcing businesses and government offices to close for the day. A City Council meeting on legislation to clean up the harbor was postponed, as was the death penalty hearing of convicted witness killer Patrick Byers Jr. at U.S. District Court.

"This is an example of what happens when you have a very aging infrastructure system," Mayor Sheila Dixon told reporters. Buildings in the area bounded by Lloyd Street on the east, Lexington Street on the north, Light Street on the west and Pratt Street on the south lost water, officials said; properties outside that perimeter suffered low water pressure or discolored water.

Matt Doud said traffic added 45 minutes to his commute from his Roland Park home to his office at 500 E. Pratt St. - and when he got there, the building was closed. His company, the advertising and public relations firm Planit, directed its 60 employees to work from home. Doud, the firm's president, was waiting Tuesday afternoon to learn whether occupants would be allowed to return on Wednesday.

"I think one or two days working remotely is one thing," he said. "But if it drags out longer than that, we may have to think of plan B."

As the water receded, city officials seized the opportunity to call attention to a problem they have warned about for years: the poor health of Baltimore's century-old network of pipes. Only Monday night, city public works spokesman Kurt Kocher had sent an e-mail to reporters suggesting articles about the age of the city's water, sewer and storm water systems.

"Nobody thinks about it because nobody sees the things," Kocher said.

Until there's a problem, that is. The city has experienced more than 5,000 water main breaks in the past four years. In February, the rupture of a 30-inch pipe under the 100 block of E. Monument St. disrupted performances at Center Stage, flooded the basement of a state building and a church, and forced the closure of sections of Calvert Street.

It's a challenge that Baltimore shares with cities across the nation, according to federal officials. Ground that shifts as it warms put stress on brittle, aging pipes. Cracks develop. Governments spend millions of dollars fixing them.

"I can't tell you where they are not facing that problem," said Steven Allbee, an expert in water and wastewater systems at the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "This is a big deal. This is a generational challenge."

In older parts of Baltimore - including downtown - the cast-iron water pipes can be as old as 100 years. Newer parts of the city have pipes that are 40 to 50 years old. Varying methods of installation and levels of pressure make it difficult to pin down their life expectancy.

Even those that don't break can leak hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each day, city Public Works Director David Scott said. He estimates that the city loses enough water each day to fill Baltimore's World Trade Center.

"If we had unlimited resources, you could replace them all," said Bob Halbert, a director at the engineering firm Rummel, Klepper & Kahl who has worked on the city's water systems for decades. "You do what you can with the scarce dollars."

Because it is both less expensive and less disruptive to fix the pipes before they break, the city has been in the process of identifying likely weak points in the system. The pipe that ruptured Tuesday was on a list of those to be repaired.

The Department of Public Works estimates the cost of needed work on the city's water, sewer and storm water systems at $2.2 billion. The figure includes $1 billion that the city agreed to spend after the Environmental Protection Agency sued, alleging that the city's 3,100 miles of sewer pipes released untreated water into the Chesapeake Bay.

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