DC infrastructure on verge of collapse

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06/03/00- Updated 01:36 PM ET

Capital's infrastructure on verge of collapse WASHINGTON (AP) - There's a mess in Washington, this one underground. Many of the city's water, telephone, sewer and gas systems are on the verge of collapse.

The capital's underground systems were among the earliest installed anywhere in the United States, and utility companies are struggling to keep them going.

''All of our existing infrastructure has reached the end of its useful life,'' said Dan Tangherlini, the capital's transportation director. ''These folks are under court orders and consent decrees to replace that infrastructure, or have made business decisions to modernize.''

Meanwhile, more than a dozen companies and scores of contract crews have been aggressively ripping up Washington's streets to install the fiber optic cables that will form the telecommunications network of the future.

The fiber optic lines are closer to the surface than water and sewer lines.

That means when older gas, water and sewer lines have to be replaced over the next two decades, the fiber optics could also be subject to relocation - a problem likely to be faced by many cities with webs of cables from competing utilities crisscrossing streets.

Kevin McCarty, assistant executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said his group's 1,100 member cities face an annual investment gap of $34 million for upgrades in water and sewer systems alone.

For District of Columbia residents and commuters from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, what's underground isn't nearly the problem as the daily punishment inflicted on their cars by the capital's pockmarked roads.

Although the city has spent $5 billion to repair and resurface its 1,421 miles of roads in the past 25 years, roadbuilding experts say the streets are likely to get only worse.

Trenchwork for optic cables has added insult to injury.

After an outcry, Mayor Anthony Williams declared a monthlong moratorium, and set new guidelines requiring that streets be repaired within 45 days of the completion of the work.

Prior to the moratorium, contractors paid a one-time processing fee of $24 for each project.

District officials are now considering charging companies between 14 cents and 88 cents a linear foot for underground work and fees of 38 cents to $1.88 for utilities strung in public space above ground.

The higher fees could generate between $6 million and $30 million a year.

The simultaneous work on sewer, gas, electric and telephone lines could jeopardize Williams' plan to resurface 150 blocks of city streets in fiscal year 2001.

City officials concede it could take two years simply to develop a mapping system that pinpoints the locations of all the underground equipment.

''It's clearly a spaghetti bowl under the streets,'' said Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose at a hearing prompted by yet another problem - 13 manhole fires and explosions since February.

Most of the blasts just released a little smoke, but others blew the 80-pound steel disks 30 feet or more into the air.

A manhole cover on a sidewalk outside the White House where tourists often gather was among those sent flying. No one was hurt.

A panel created by Congress to oversee the district's finances estimates it could take as much as $5 billion to put Washington's infrastructure in shape. Some work is already happening.

The independent D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, for example, is in the third year of a $1.6 billion 10-year capital improvement plan.

The Blue Plains water treatment plant, with a capacity of 370 million gallons a day and 130,000 residential and commercial customers, is connected to sewer lines dating to the 19th century.

Newer infrastructure systems are not immune.

For the past 13 months, train operators on the Metrorail subway system have been forced to use manual breaking controls because of problems with 17,000 electrical relays used in the 103-mile long system that serves 549,000 riders each day.

In April, firefighters had to evacuate 273 passengers from a subway tunnel after an electrical fire between stations.

The transit agency is spending $254 million on maintenance and repairs to the 24-year-old system this year.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 03, 2000


Re: "There's a mess in Washington, this one underground. Many of the city's water, telephone, sewer and gas systems are on the verge of collapse" I wonder in how many cities Y2K raised awareness of messes like this? And I wonder how many city managers were aware of messes like this and found Y2K to raise support for doing something about it? And I wonder how many cities will wait for crises and disaster to strike before it becomes a priority....

-- Jan Nickerson (JaNickrson@aol.com), June 05, 2000.

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