Falls Road gets a bad break


Brian Oursler, who owns an auto repair shop on Falls Road, figures that Monday's water-main break next to his garage has cost him $10,000 in lost business.

"It basically shut me down," said Oursler, who has owned the Mount Washington Autohaus for 26 years on the small commercial corridor that is now partially blocked by construction. "They should have fixed it already."

The 20-inch cast-iron water pipe that popped open Monday is one of the most recent in a series of breaks, making this year one of the city's worst ever for water-main splits.

Problems in the 5700 block of Falls Road have come to typify the travails and traffic hassles of Baltimore residents who've had to endure delays, flooding and lost revenue because of the cracks.

Officials with the Department of Public Works say they are hoping to have the Falls Road main fixed by today. Traffic could resume by Monday night, they said.

They say they don't know what caused the crack, or the majority of the other 633 water-main breaks this year.

There have been twice as many this summer as last, said department spokesman Kurt Kocher.

"We're not really sure what's causing them," Kocher said.

One theory is that extreme heat this summer has caused the ground to shift and buckle, causing pipes to shift in turn. Another possibility is that drought-related redirection of water in the system has overstressed the pipes.

Most breaks occur during the winter, he said, when freeze-and-thaw cycles take their worst toll on the city's pipes.

The most notorious break last year was during the tunnel accident in June, which resulted in a fire that burned for five days and a crack in a water pipe that flooded the Howard Street corridor.

On Falls Road this week, businesses also took in water, and several closed for one or more days.

"People keep calling and asking, 'You open? You open?'" said Paul Schiffbauer, owner of the Curb Shop tavern in the 5700 block of Falls Road, which closed Monday because the floor was covered in water.

"My business is off at least 50 or 75 percent," he said.

Four blocks on Falls Road, from Northern Parkway to the Kelly Avenue bridge, have been closed to traffic for almost a week. Cars traveling south on Falls Road have to detour around Lake Avenue, Roland Road and Northern Parkway to get back to Falls Road again.

"It's a major inconvenience," said Phyllis Becherman Judd, who picked up her dry cleaning yesterday morning from a store next to the construction.

Inside Mount Washington Cleaners, workers said they felt the pinch. "We are very slow," said seamstress Haeok Park. "Only about 5 or 10 percent of our customers have been coming in."

This water-main fracture is tricky to fix because it is 16 feet below ground, much deeper than the average pipe, according to public works officials.

And it is complicated because a culvert that contains a stream passes directly over the spot where the main split.

"Our workers have been working triple shifts, around the clock on this one," said Kocher, who was at the site yesterday morning. "This is one of the most difficult ones we've had.

About 10:30 a.m., he announced a water valve had split and was spouting water about four blocks south on Falls Road and Northern Parkway.

The valve fracture was caused by the construction on the main break, he said. It was fairly easy to fix, Kocher said, and apparently did not affect traffic.

Oursler, owner of the auto repair shop, said he wishes his block was as lucky.

The construction has caused massive amounts of dust that have covered his cars, his tools, his computer and himself. He cleaned the street earlier this week with his pressure washer.

"It's like a dust bowl here," Oursler said. "It made me sick as a dog."

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