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Charles St. water main break could cause continued traffic snarls

Commuters north of downtown will see major traffic disruptions Thursday, as Baltimore deals with another problem with its aging water infrastructure — this time the failure of a 90-year-old main that closed the intersection of North Charles Street and North Avenue.

Public water rushed south along Charles Street all day Wednesday, buckling pavement, shuttering businesses and temporarily displacing residents in the Charles North neighborhood after a 60-inch transmission pipe broke at the East 20th Street intersection.

"I've never seen anything like this. The thing that amazes me is that all this water is still running," said Sherman Smith, who owns Perfect Touch salon on Charles Street.

The gushing water spared his store, but knocked out a day of business, making Wednesday "a total loss."

By 5 p.m., people had been allowed to return to their homes and city officials had largely ruled out road collapses, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.

Some water was still flowing from the main as of Thursday morning, but at a much reduced rate than Wednesday. "Whereas we had a river of water" on Wednesday, Kocher said, "it's down to a small stream now."

Kocher said crews are working to shut a valve that will cut off the flow of water from the broken main completely, and hope to accomplish that Thursday. Then he said crews can begin to pump water out, evaluate the extent of the damage and start repairs.

It was not clear how long it would take for traffic to return to normal, Kocher said, but some side streets may be able to reopen by the end of Thursday.

The flooding is the latest symptom of the city's infrastructure woes. In July, two blocks of Light Street were closed for nearly a month as crews worked to repair a broken main under the busy downtown thoroughfare. Another break closed East Cold Spring Lane last week.

The Charles Street incident blocked major routes into the city from all directions and forced the Maryland Transit Administration to reroute buses.

Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy director of transportation, said commuters should be prepared to take alternative routes while the main is repaired, including Interstate 83 for those heading north and south. North Avenue also will remain closed, meaning commuters should take 25th Street on the north side of the break, while those to the south should take Mount Royal Avenue.

Closures also were affecting 20th, Lanvale and Lafayette streets.

"Do your best to avoid the area," he said.

The burst pipe is likely to affect water pressure throughout a wide area, but residents and businesses should still have water, Kocher said.

Residents in north central Baltimore could experience some discoloration in their water, and should let their faucets run until it clears, Kocher said. He did not believe any residents were without water, but said some may have low pressure. Those with concerns should call 311, he said.

He could not give an exact estimate for how long the repairs would take.

"We ... will not know until we excavate and get a look at the infrastructure and evaluate what needs to be repaired," he said Thursday.

As of 5:30 p.m., Baltimore Gas and Electric had shut off natural gas to three customers and power to 12 as crews assessed the utility's underground lines in the area, said Rob Gould, a utility spokesman.

A gas main line travels under Charles Street near the water main break, and remained in service, Gould said. But that may change as the scope of the damage becomes more clear.

While many businesses in the area were forced to close, only a few residents were evacuated briefly. Scott Brillman of the Baltimore City Mayor's Office of Emergency Management said crews found some flooded basements from the water main break.

Water also flowed down an embankment at Penn Station, causing Amtrak officials to take one track out of service. No trains were canceled.

Kathleen Cusack, co-owner of the Charles Theatre, said she stopped by the building and was relieved to find that there was no damage.

"We were there but there was really no way for any customers to get there," she said.

The theater closed Wednesday but she said they planned to open with normal hours on Thursday. She didn't expect any disruption to a planned visit from director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone.

"That's our plan," she said. "We're hoping."

At the nearby Metro Gallery in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, where muddy water lapped up over the sidewalk, owner Sarah Wernersaid she found about four inches of water all the way to its back door. She had sand bags in storage and immediately put them at the door. But water continued to flow over them.

"It could have been worse," she said. "We usually have carpet down but had pulled them up for a recent event. Our artwork is high enough on the walls to avoid damage. I was able to move some sound speakers onto the stage."

Her neighbors at the Metro Cleaners were working hastily to mop up water, trying to push it out onto the street with squeegees.

Tyra Pierce, 56, who works for the city health department at the Walbert building at 1600 N. Charles St., paced up and down Charles, between North Avenue and Lanvale, trying to find the best place to cross.

Across the street from her building, a green station wagon was parked with water rushing over its wheels. "I normally park right there," Pierce said.

Garland Thomas, 45, who works a few floors above Pierce's office, also contemplated how best to cross the shallow, but rushing river.

"That's the trick — getting across. I'm trying to figure out the best approach," said Thomas, surveying the watery mess from the Hess gas station across the street.

He opted against a sprint across, deciding to walk around.

Thomas, who works for the Central Baltimore Partnership nonprofit, said he's never seen such a break, "This is basically four or five blocks. This is unprecedented."

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Edward Gunts contributed to this article.

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