NEW YORK — The blast that leveled two buildings served by a 127-year-old gas main has provided a jarring reminder of how old and vulnerable much of the infrastructure is in New York and many other cities nationwide.
A detailed report issued a day before Wednesday’s explosion in East Harlem 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. Simply 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, D.C., think tank.
Infrastructure 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 — others remain missing — and injured more than 60, some critically.
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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 if 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.
On Tuesday, a New York-based think tank, the Center for an Urban Future, released a 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 $47.3 billion would be needed in the next five years to make crucially needed repairs and replacements.
The report’s author, Adam Forman, noted that Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor from 2002 through 2013, oversaw significant new construction but said the city lost ground during that period in terms of infrastructure maintenance.
“Repairing and replacing aging infrastructure is not glamorous, but it’s critical,” said Forman, who suggested that the East Harlem explosion might be the sort of catalyst needed to gain politicians’ attention.
Infrastructure problems beset cities across the United States.
In Washington, D.C., for example, a research team from Duke University and Boston University recently reported finding more than 5,890 leaks from aging natural-gas pipelines. The team said some manholes had methane concentrations about 10 times greater than the threshold at which explosions can occur.
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 under way 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.
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 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.
A Con Ed spokesman, Bob McGee, said the age of the cast-iron pipes isn’t a safety hazard in and of itself. But safety experts say the iron pipes are susceptible to cracks caused by earth movement related to seasonal frost heaves, nearby construction work or changes in groundwater levels.
“If I lived near an 1887 small-diameter cast-iron main, I’m living next to a ticking time bomb,” said Bob Ackley, of Southborough, Mass., a natural-gas safety consultant who operates Gas Safety USA. He said utilities should speed up their replacement timetables.
According to the Department of Transportation, New York City uses about 3,000 miles of decades-old cast-iron gas pipe, Boston about 2,000 miles and Philadelphia about 1,500 miles.
In addition to cost, one deterrent to massive pipe replacement is disruption to traffic.
Forman, of the Center for an Urban Future, acknowledged this was a challenge in a crowded city such as New York but said new technologies were being developed to reduce the need for cutting streets open.