Water main break causes disruptions in downtown Baltimore

Commuters to face delays Tuesday, officials warn

  • A water main break in downtown Baltimore caused pavement on Light Street to buckle.
A water main break in downtown Baltimore caused pavement on… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
July 16, 2012|By Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Commuters to Baltimore are likely to face heavy traffic and major delays Tuesday, after a large water main break downtown buckled the surface of Light Street and sent water gushing through Lombard and Pratt streets.

Jamie Kendrick, the city’s deputy transportation director, advised commuters to “think ahead, plan ahead, [and] use alternate routes” Tuesday, including Metro and light rail.

“We’ve got a lot to find out once we’ve got the water shut off,” Kendrick said. “This is going to be a couple of days’ worth of work.”

The break, which Department of Public Works officials said was along a 20-inch main line that dates to 1890, forced water through the surface of Light Street north of Lombard Street late Monday afternoon, heaving asphalt skyward and leaving gaping holes in the road. City workers closed Light Street from Baltimore Street to Pratt Street and Lombard Street from Light Street to N. Calvert Street, adding hours to the evening commute as vehicles were diverted onto already-jammed side streets.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who came to the scene along with the heads of multiple city agencies and dozens of public works, emergency, fire and police personnel, said the break was a reminder of the city’s aging infrastructure and the need for more funding for upgrades.

“Until we have enough funds, we are going to continue to be vulnerable to things like this, and nobody wants that,” Rawlings-Blake said.

The break was just the latest for an aging water system that stretches well beyond the city limits. The city typically experiences about 1,000 water main breaks per year, not including service lines that go into specific buildings or homes, said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Works. There have been about 480 breaks in 2012, he said.

Public works officials recently asked nearly 2 million residents to conserve drinking water for three weeks so crews could make “proactive” repairs to an aging main in Southwest Baltimore. The repair work was needed to prevent a potential failure on the Southwest Transmission Main, a pre-stressed concrete pipeline dating from the 1970s, officials said.

As public works crews worked Monday to shut off valves supplying water to the broken main — which they succeeded in doing about 7 p.m. — bystanders looked on, snapping pictures of the gushing water and Light Street’s crumbled surface.

“I thought it was just a main break, but now the ground is coming up? What is that?” said Jillian Miller, of Owings Mills. “That's really wild.”

Pam Kitka, of Detroit, who was in town for job training with the Social Security Administration and is staying at staying at the Tremont Plaza Hotel through Saturday, echoed Miller’s surprise.

“This is pretty crazy. I've never seen anything like this,” Kitka said. “I hope they don't have to turn the water off to our hotel.”

Some buildings did lose water, and at least one had water damage to its basement, officials and local business owners said.

Kocher said the city has brought in a private contractor to help with repairs, and that crews would be working overnight to assess the problem. Repairs would begin as soon as that assessment was completed but may take awhile because of the depth of the main, he said.

“It’s going to be disruptive; that’s the real difficulty we'll face with this because it is downtown,” Kocher said. “We'll get through this, but it’s just the worst location for traffic situations.”

Alfred Foxx, the city’s public works director, said Monday’s break was “a good example of our need to move forward modernizing so we can predict when large breaks will occur.”

His agency is installing technology on major mains that will alert it to vulnerabilities. The goal is to expand that technology to smaller mains, such as the 20-inch main that broke Monday.

“If we can somehow predict or have information to predict a potential water main break, we can get in here and prevent it,” Foxx said. “You don't know when it's going to happen, so we spend a lot of time reacting to it when we should be using technology to be proactive.”

Councilman William H. Cole, IV, a Democrat who represents much of downtown and South Baltimore, said the city has its hands full with infrastructure issues.

“I mean, you're talking about billions of dollars. It's somewhat daunting,” he said, surveying the damage to Light Street.”There's only so much you can do with limited resources and 75- to 100-year-old pipes.”

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