NYC blast spotlights infrastructure

Report estimates $47 billion is needed for repairs and replacement in the next five years

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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 report issued only a day before Wednesday's East Harlem explosion estimates that $47 billion is needed for repairs and replacement in 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 $3 trillion to $5 trillion over the next 20 years, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

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 blast, which destroyed two apartment buildings at 116th Street and Park Avenue, 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 blast. 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 Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., 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, told reporters the burden falls on the federal government to provide more aid to U.S. cities for repairing and replacing aging infrastructure. "The broader infrastructure challenge is something we address every single day with the resources we have, but that is a tough battle, considering we are not getting some of the support that we deserve," he said.

On Tuesday, a New York-based public policy think tank, the Center for an Urban Future, published 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 five years to make crucially needed repairs and replacements.

The report's author, Adam Forman, noted that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in office from 2002 through 2013, oversaw substantial new construction, but said the city lost ground in that period on infrastructure maintenance. "Repairing and replacing aging infrastructure is not glamorous, but it's critical," said Mr. Forman, who suggested the East Harlem blast might be a catalyst to gain politicians' attention.

Nationally, the Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, estimates that more than 30,000 miles of decades-old cast iron pipe are still being used to deliver gas. A federally monitored replacement program, at a cost in the billions of dollars, is underway but moving slowly, even as occasional tragedies underscore the urgency of the problem. In 2011, for example, there were two fatal explosions in Pennsylvania linked to old cast-iron mains -- one installed in 1928, the other in 1942.

According to the Department of Transportation, New York City still uses about 3,000 miles of decades-old cast-iron gas pipe, Boston about 2,000 miles and Philadelphia about 1,500 miles.

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