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Water main breaks have caused as many “major incidents” in the subways in the first three weeks of 2020 as they did in all of last year, according to MTA data.
Ruptures of city-owned pipes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side disrupted commuters for hours after hundreds of thousands of gallons of water poured into the 66th Street-Lincoln Center station on the No. 1 line on Jan. 13, and on the 103rd Street stop on the B and C lines six days later.
The two floods delayed or canceled at least 382 trains across a dozen lines, according to MTA data obtained by THE CITY.
That’s nearly 150 more delays or cancelations than a pair of major incidents last year in Chelsea tied to water main breaks. On Jan. 23, 2019, a water main burst near 14th Street crippled L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and on March 26, riders on the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 lines were stymied when water poured into the 23rd St. stop.
The most recent deluges sparked a pointed statement from New York City Transit head of subways Sally Librera, who said the riders were “denied service for too lengthy a period because of a major city water main break.”
“We hope this latest incident will spur quicker shut-off response times by the city and a review of its aging system in hopes of avoiding similar situations moving forward,” Librera said.
Miles and Miles of Mains
But a 2019 Center for an Urban Future report on the New York’s infrastructure — titled “Caution Ahead” — said that until 2018 the city had not met its mark for replacing 68 miles of water mains a year for more than a decade.
The Department of Environmental Protection replaced more than 92 miles of water mains in 2018, the report says. In all, the city has some 6,800 miles of water mains.
“The average age of a water main is about 65 to 70 years old and for years, the city has been behind in replacing these water mains,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “There are too many old water mains to replace in a given year, and the city’s got to be making progress every year.”
Two weeks ago, more than 500,000 gallons of water cascaded into the 66th Street-Lincoln Center station when a 36-inch water main break a few blocks south of the station suspended service along a portion of the 1, 2 and 3 lines for almost half the day.
On Jan. 19, a 12-inch water main break near 102nd Street and Central Park West caused A,C and D train service to be suspended on a Sunday morning when riders were already facing extensive work-related reroutings throughout the system.
“Because of the inconsistency of the trains on the weekends, I’ve been taking the M4 bus, from Washington Heights over towards the East Side,” said Jim Smith, who lives uptown. “As I was coming down to the stop at 175th Street, a station attendant told me there was a water main break and that service was messed up.”
More Than ‘a Few Puddles’
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the city spends about $400 million a year to build new water mains, and suffers 6.6 breaks for every 100 miles of pipe, compared to a national average of 25 breaks per 100 miles.
“We work hard not to contribute to the regular obstacles faced by straphangers in getting to their destinations in a timely manner,” said Edward Timbers, a DEP spokesperson.
The MTA face leaks in its subway stations and has to clear more than 40,000 street grates to keep leaves and litter from building up on the tracks and clogging drains.
Crews have sealed more than 8,200 leaks and twice cleared those 40,000 grates since the start of emergency fixes to the subway in the summer of 2017.
MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek said transit officials are “confident that work has led to fewer water-related major incidents and also helped us bounce back more quickly after recent water main breaks.”
In the last decade, records show, significant subway disruptions caused by water main breaks peaked at four in 2013 and 2011.
Internal reports obtained by THE CITY show there have been more than 560 water conditions — including water main breaks — that have affected subway service since 2010.
“We’re going to continue to see these types of breaks, and it’s not going to be a few puddles,” Bowles warned.
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