City re-emphasizes need to replace infrastructure after water main break

After another city water main break caused fast-moving water to rush down Charles Street on Wednesday, officials defended plans to spend millions to upgrade Baltimore's aging public water system.

The broken pipe at North Charles and East 20th streets, just above North Avenue, marks the latest water main failure, causing road closures and headaches.

"It's big and it's bad, and we need more money for water infrastructure," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said of the break.

Fixing the city's infrastructure problems may not be a primary concern for most residents, she said, but it's important work.

"It's not sexy. You want to turn the spigot on and get water," the mayor said. "Nobody cares about how. We have pipes under the ground that are over 100 years old."

The pipe that broke under Charles and 20th streets had been put into place in the 1920s. Much of the city's buried water infrastructure is 75 to 100 years old.

Faced with about 3,800 miles of aging water lines, the city's Department of Public Works is taking an active approach, with plans to replace underground pipes each year, said Alfred H. Foxx, the public works director.

The city now replaces only about five miles of pipe a year, but has set a goal of replacing 40 miles each year in the future. The city's Board of Estimates passed a 9 percent rate increase for water and wastewater bills to help pay for such improvements.

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Public Works Department, said it would increase the number of pipes replaced each year. In the next five years, the work is expected to cost $300 million. After five years, he said, the city hopes to continue replacing 40 miles of pipes a year at an estimated cost of $1.2 million per mile.

In the past few months, multiple water main breaks have snarled traffic, closing off already congested city streets, sometimes affecting businesses and leaving some residents without water service or forcing them from their homes.

A portion of East Monument Street near Johns Hopkins Hospital was evacuated twice in the summer after a large sinkhole in the road opened, and later reopened and expanded, above a 120-year-old drainage culvert.

Another 10-inch water main in Southwest Baltimore caused a sinkhole to open on Frederick Avenue in August. As crews made repairs, about 100 homes in the area lost water service.

Commuters downtown were forced to avoid a two-block stretch of Light Street when the road had to be closed for about a month while crews repaired a large pipe that ruptured there in July.

And just last week, utility crews rushed to repair a water main break on East Cold Spring Lane, which was closed, and a second break on York Road, where 43 residences lost water service.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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