Commuters to Baltimore faced 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.
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.
Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Works, said the city’s on-call contractor was scheduled to begin work at 7 a.m. Tuesday to repair the water main. He said the contractor would be excavating around the site of the break and establishing temporary water feeds to buildings that that lost water.
Six buildings on the west side of Light Street between Redwood Street and Lombard Street lost water, Kocher said. The buildings include street-level businesses such as a Royal Farms store and upper level offices. Kocher said water pressure was low at a seventh building, 10 Light Street, one of the tallest in the city.
Kocher said he could not say how long the buildings affected would be without water. He said the city would have a better idea after work gets under way Tuesday morning.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who came to the scene Monday 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, Kocher said. 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.”
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.