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Water main break causes disruptions in downtown Baltimore

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.

“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.

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.

“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.”

Rawlings-Blake said she has been lobbying the federal government for more funding for water infrastructure as co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ water council. The scope of the problem was a major reason she voted for a 9 percent increase in water rates last month, she said.

Monday’s break was “not unique” and was indicative of much broader problems with water infrastructure — not just in Baltimore, but throughout the region and country, she said.

City Councilman Robert Curran said the break was a “vindication of the need to raise water rates.”

State Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, called the break “predictable,” and said city leaders should “devise a plan for ongoing maintenance and restoration, so we're not always going from water main break to water main break.”

“We know the system is antiquated, and we know it's a matter of time before it implodes. So why wait for the implosion?” she said.

Earlier this year, breaks temporarily shut down York Road in Cockeysville and East Seminary Avenue in Lutherville. And last summer, shop owners and residents along Broadway in East Baltimore were left without water for several days after a pipe cracked.

One of the most dramatic breaks came in September 2009, when a 6-foot-wide pre-stressed concrete main released millions of gallons, deluging a Dundalk shopping center and washing out part of Broening Highway. About 100 homes were flooded, and hundreds more lost power as water cascaded into the communities of Logan Village, Turners Station and Water's Edge. Emergency crews used boats to rescue some people as water crested as high as car door handles.

In another incident that year, a break sent water into the streets north of the Inner Harbor, shutting down water, electricity, telephone and Internet service and forcing businesses and government offices to close for the day.

As the streets began to dry Monday night, local residents and business owners turned their sights to coming days, when city officials said repairs will continue.

“This means real traffic,” said Terry Coffman, owner of Supano’s Steakhouse on Water Street.

Coffman said he expects the main break will cause as much traffic as other major events downtown, including the largest of Orioles games.

“This is like Yankee traffic,” he said, “on a Friday night.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Edward Gunts and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.


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