Nutter: Busted water main proof of major need for infrastructure money

Posted: July 25, 2012

IF MAYOR NUTTER needed proof to back up his claims that Philadelphia could use more federal infrastructure dollars, he got it Sunday when a 100-year-old water main erupted in Southwest Center City, sending rivers of water gushing through the streets, forcing a massive evacuation and flooding many homes.

"This is a little bit of a larger story. When we talk about infrastructure … it's all the stuff you don't see," Nutter said Monday, standing just feet from the gaping hole at 21st and Bainbridge streets. "Having additional financial support, whether that's from grants or at times, unfortunately, from rate hikes, we are constantly trying to upgrade and update our system. "

Officials didn't know Monday what caused the break on a 48-inch main at 21st and Bainbridge streets, which happened about 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Roughly 100 people were briefly evacuated, and many more throughout Center City and South Philadelphia lost water. The people living in the houses on that corner still couldn't get into their homes Monday night.

But the timing was hard to overlook. Just last week, in his role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Nutter stood arm in arm with leaders from around the country and demanded more federal dollars for urban-infrastructure projects. The group complained that spending on public works has declined and said more money from Congress would both help shore up systems and provide jobs.

"We do certainly the best we can with the resources we have and have made improvements in a variety of inspection services and lining these mains," Nutter said Monday. "But certainly with additional resources we would be able to do more."

Philadelphia's water system has about 3,100 miles of pipe, with an average age of about 70 years, said Debra McCarty, the Water Department's deputy commissioner for operations. The main that burst Sunday dated to 1916, but had been reinforced with cement, McCarty said.

McCarty described the city's maintenance of the pipe system as "aggressive." According to McCarty, the city averages about 221 breaks for every thousand miles of pipe annually — a stat she said was well below the national average of 270 breaks for every thousand miles. She said the city replaces about 18 miles of pipe each year and checks every mile every three years.

The city plans to raise water rates 28.5 percent over the next four years, starting in October, in part to cover the costs of the aging system, officials said.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell has been a vocal advocate for more infrastructure spending since his time in the governor's mansion.

"Our water mains were made in the 19th century. It's one tragedy waiting to happen after another," said Rendell. "We've got to do a massive infrastructure revitalization in this country. Our infrastructure spending is pathetic."

According to a report from the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for quality drinking water, the nation needs more spending on water infrastructure. The report estimated that the country needs to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years to properly maintain and expand water systems.

AWWA spokesman Greg Weil said the group supports a proposal that would provide low-interest federal loans to cities for infrastructure projects.

Contact Catherine Lucey at 215-854-4172 or luceyc@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @phillyclout and read her blog at phillyclout.com.

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