A downtown Light Rail platform collapsed into the ground beneath it Wednesday morning, two days into a mess of infrastructure failures that Baltimore officials warned could cause significant traffic and transit disruptions for days.
And with heavy rain in the forecast Thursday, officials were rushing to set up systems to divert stormwater that threatened to cause further damage.
A sinkhole near the intersection of Howard and Pratt streets appeared to swallow an elevated platform that allows wheelchair users to access Light Rail trains. As the underground void grew, crews were in the process of removing the ramp and platform when it collapsed before 9 a.m., city Public Works Director Rudy Chow said.
The problems stem from a water main break that occurred beneath Howard Street on Monday, causing a train derailment and flooding areas around M&T Bank Stadium with inches of muddy water. Since then, city crews have struggled to respond, with one electrical worker seriously injured Monday in an underground collapse.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Wednesday said road closures surrounding the incident would “significantly” snarl traffic downtown, and urged drivers to take alternate routes. Light Rail traffic was suspended between Howard Street and Camden Yards, with the sinkhole stretching to the edge of its tracks.
Chow said there is no estimate for when repairs would be complete.
“We certainly would like to open up the roadway as soon as possible, but we’ve got to make sure the road is safe for the motorists as well as pedestrians,” he said. “We’ll try to restore it as quickly as we can.”
Public works officials said restoring Light Rail service is expected to be the last step in the process.
They said a water main break occurred beneath the Pratt/Howard intersection on the west side of downtown Monday morning. It’s unclear if it was linked to heavy rain that moved through the region, causing dangerous flash flooding in the Washington area, they said.
Both a 12-inch water and a 36-inch stormwater line were compromised, Chow said, though it was unclear which break occurred first. He attributed the problem to “aging infrastructure.”
Much of Baltimore’s water and sewer infrastructure is a century old and crumbling. The city is working to replace about 100 miles of water mains at a rate of about 10 miles a year; it budgeted $83 million to replace about 15 miles of water mains in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
It is meanwhile expected to spend $1.6 billion over 13 years to replace sewer infrastructure under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requiring it to stop most sewage contamination in city waterways by 2022.
The downtown water main break was fixed Monday morning, officials said, but work to address related damage has continued.
Crews have been working to fill the sinkhole with rock, while CSX, which operates the rail tunnel that runs beneath Howard Street, also cleared debris and assessed damage to ensure it was safe to run trains. By Wednesday afternoon, it was running trains through the tunnel at slower than usual speeds, public works officials said.
“Everything appears to be safe for them,” Chow said. “They will continue to operate cautiously in the next few days.”
As the repairs continue, two main downtown arteries are closed for several blocks around the collapsed area: Pratt Street between Paca and Sharp streets and Howard Street between Lombard and Conway streets.
All northbound Interstate 395 traffic is being directed onto Conway Street.
City transportation officials urged motorists not to enter downtown via West Pratt Street, but to use Mulberry or Baltimore streets instead. Drivers entering the city via the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Russell Street are encouraged to use Paca Street to Mulberry or Baltimore streets.
With storms in the forecast Thursday, crews were working quickly to build above-ground systems to pump and bypass stormwater to prevent any further erosion and flooding, public works spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said.
The National Weather Service is calling for “copious” amounts of moisture in the air Thursday, creating the potential for downpours that could quickly drop an inch or two of rainfall.