NEW YORK – Even while the cause remains unknown, a deadly blast that leveled two buildings served by a 127-year-old gas main has provided a jarring reminder of just how old and vulnerable much of the infrastructure is in New York and many other cities nationwide.
A detailed report issued only a day before Wednesday’s explosion in East Harlem estimates that $47 billion is needed for repairs and replacement over the next five years to spare New York from havoc.
Nationally, the projected bill – for bridges, highways, mass transit and more – is almost incalculable. Just upgrading the nation’s water and wastewater systems is projected to cost between $3 trillion and $5 trillion over the next 20 years, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Politicians often shy away from blunt talk about infrastructure, but it was in the spotlight Thursday as investigators sought to determine how and why a suspected natural gas leak triggered the explosion, which destroyed two apartment buildings, killed at least eight people and injured more than 60.
The gas pipe serving the building included a cast iron section dating from 1887, and a nearby water main was built in 1897.
Federal investigators said the water main broke but it was unknown whether that contributed to the gas explosion or was caused by it, and it was unknown whether the gas pipe played any role in the explosion.
It was nonetheless upsetting for some New Yorkers to be reminded that Consolidated Edison, the natural gas supplier for East Harlem and much of the rest of the city, makes extensive use of 19th-century piping.
“I can’t imagine how we can have pipes underground in New York that were put in there in the 1800s,” said U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat who represents Harlem in Congress. “You know we talk about infrastructure, but the whole damn city is falling apart.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office Jan. 1, says the burden lies with the federal government to provide more aid to U.S. cities for repair and replacement of aging infrastructure.
Just Tuesday, a public policy think tank in New York, the Center for an Urban Future, released a detailed report about New York’s infrastructure, saying it posed problems that “could wreak havoc on the city’s economy and quality of life” if left unchecked.
It estimated that $47.3 billion would be needed over the next five years to make crucially needed repairs and replacements.
“Repairing and replacing aging infrastructure is not glamorous, but it’s critical,” said report author Adam Forman, who suggested that the East Harlem explosion might be the sort of catalyst needed to gain politicians’ attention.
In 2011, there were two fatal explosions in Pennsylvania linked to old cast-iron mains – one installed in 1928, the other in 1942.
Con Edison, like its counterparts across the country, has a program to replace cast iron pipelines with plastic pipes, costing about $110 million a year.
It is now accelerating the program from 50 miles of pipe a year to 65 miles annually, but even at that rate, completion could be two nearly decades away.
According to federal data, Con Edison had 1,418 miles of old pipeline to replace in 2004, and as of 2012 still had 1,286 miles left to go.