Water main repairs to keep Light Street closed for weeks

A 120-year-old water main that broke and flooded downtown streets will disrupt traffic for at least three weeks, said city officials who reminded residents that such disruptions are frequent because of the aging infrastructure beneath Baltimore.

As crews surveyed a gaping hole caused in part by a water main that burst under Light Street, other workers had been dispatched to Fells Point where another pipe broke, forcing the city to close part of Fleet Street and cutting water service for a time to about 30 businesses and homes.

The incidents underscored a reality in Baltimore: The city sees two to three water main breaks a day. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday that preventing water main breaks in a city as old as Baltimore is financially impossible. The mayor said billions of dollars are needed to overhaul all of the old pipes that could burst at any moment.

"You'd be hard pressed to find an aging city in the United States that has the money to keep pace with its water infrastructure projects," she said.

The pipe under Light Street had previously been identified as a "high-risk" piece of the city's infrastructure, though that's a common designation for water mains in Baltimore, city officials said.

The replacement efforts will keep Light Street closed between Baltimore and Lombard streets through the second week of August. The right lane of Lombard between South Calvert and Light streets also will remain closed as crews repair water damage to the road, officials said.

The downtown break disrupted workplaces and commutes. Some city workers were forced to leave their cars Monday night in a parking garage that exited to a street that was closed. Several businesses shut because they didn't have water service. And after traffic snarled for hours Monday night, workers were encouraged to take public transportation and avoid affected areas.

The 20-inch-wide pipe, which dates to 1889, ruptured near Light and Redwood streets about 5 p.m. Monday, crumbling the roadway and sending water through downtown streets. Commuters were diverted from Light and Lombard streets in the city center.

On Tuesday, officials said about 700 feet of the pipe will have to be replaced, as will a parallel 10-inch pipe that dates to 1914 and also was identified as "high risk" in a city assessment three years ago.

"The logical thing, while the street is open, while the street has been undermined like that, is to take out the other old line," said Kurt Kocher, a city public works spokesman, noting that the pipes were installed during the presidential administrations of Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson, respectively.

City officials at a news conference Tuesday on Light Street said they did not recall how much pipe was considered high risk.

Alfred Foxx, director of the city's Public Works Department, called such breaks frustrating, but said the city is trying to be smart about the way it approaches the monumental task of updating infrastructure. He said the city is trying to be more proactive in addressing problems on a systemwide basis, expanding an effort to install technology on major water mains that alerts the department to potential ruptures.

Foxx said his department has decided it will begin increasing the amount of aged piping it replaces each year. "We're going to commit ourselves to doing that," he said.

According to Kocher, there are about 3,800 miles of water lines in the city, with much of the pipe 75 to 100 years old.

The department now replaces less than five miles of water pipe a year but hopes to replace about 20 miles of pipeline in the next fiscal year and to increase that to 40 miles per year within five years, Kocher said.

Increasing the pace at that rate over the next five years would cost $300 million dollars, Foxx said.

Even if met, that goal would not erase the city's water infrastructure problems.

Rawlings-Blake, who is co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Water Council, pointed to her recent Board of Estimates vote for a 9 percent rate increase for water and wastewater bills. She said such efforts to raise revenue are needed to fund continued infrastructure repair and to modernize the city system.

"When you have infrastructure that's over 150 years old in some places, you have to make the tough choices," she said. "It's extremely unpopular to talk about raising water rates. None of this is popular, but it's necessary. We try to keep a pace that makes sense based on what we can afford."

Downtown, many people were focused Tuesday on the immediate problems caused by Monday's break.

Light Street was blocked off, and police were posted to redirect traffic. Throughout the day, pedestrians came by to see which businesses were open and to survey the damage to Light Street, including a large hole near Redwood Street and sections that had buckled. Some people took pictures with their cellphones.

In addition to the section of Light Street closed for repairs, the block between Redwood and Baltimore streets was closed and being used as a staging area for the construction work.

J. Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said business owners in the area were "taking it in stride, and they recognize the city is doing all it can." He noted that most of downtown is open for business and walk-able.

The closed blocks of Light Street are near the heart of downtown and contain businesses that include a hotel and one of the city's tallest office buildings, housing the law firm of Miles and Stockbridge.

At least two buildings on the west side of Light Street between Redwood and Lombard lost water service and were closed Tuesday. The McDonald's at the southeast corner of Baltimore and Light streets also lost water service and was closed.

The buildings on the west side of Light Street house a Royal Farms store, a 7-Eleven and a branch of Susquehanna Bank, as well as upper-level offices. Kocher said water pressure was low at another commercial building, 10 Light Street, but it was open Tuesday.

Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said fire crews had helped businesses pump water out of their basements Monday.

The city's on-call contractor began repair work Tuesday morning on Light Street. Kocher said workers would be excavating around the site of the break and establishing temporary lines to buildings that lost water service. Officials said water service would be restored to buildings Thursday.

Meanwhile, a second water main break about 2 a.m. Tuesday forced the city to close Fleet Street between Bond and Caroline streets. Repair work in Fells Point was completed Tuesday evening, Kocher said. The rupture damaged a 6-inch water main, he said. Foxx said the Fells Point break was not related to the Light Street break.

"It's not uncommon to have about two or three water main breaks a day," Foxx said.

There were no reports of the water main break affecting water supply outside the city, though Baltimore supplies drinking water to 1.8 million area residents via three reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties, treating the raw water at filtration plants at Montebello in East Baltimore and Ashburton in West Baltimore.

The system isn't quite as old as Baltimore, but it dates to the mid-19th century, when the city bought a 50-year-old private water company and formed its own water department.

Work began shortly afterward on Lake Roland dam across the Jones Falls, and the system kept growing over the next century, with the construction of three large reservoirs. To safeguard people against water-borne diseases, the city began treating its supply with chlorine in 1910, and the first filtration plant followed in 1915.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Edward Gunts and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.



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