Explosion a Reminder of NYC’s Aging Infrastructure


Even while the exact cause remains unknown, a deadly blast that leveled two Manhattan 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.

Just the day before, 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.

According to the report:

  • More than 1,000 miles of New York City water mains are 100-plus years old. The typical water main is 69 years old, and there have been more than 400 water main breaks annually in recent years.
  • More than 160 bridges across the five boroughs were built more than a century ago, and 47 bridges in 2012 were deemed structurally deficient and prone to collapse.
  • The subway system abounds with signals that have exceeded their 50-year useful life, slowing the movement of trains and forcing maintenance workers to build their own replacement parts because manufacturers no longer make them.

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.

Politicians often shy away from blunt talk about infrastructure, but it was in the spotlight this week as investigators sought to determine how and why a suspected natural gas leak triggered the explosion that destroyed two apartment buildings, killed at least eight people and injured more than 60.

Whether an 1887 cast-iron gas main serving the buildings was a factor remained unknown. But it was nonetheless upsetting for some New Yorkers to be reminded that Con Edison 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, a Democrat who represents Harlem. “You know we talk about infrastructure, but the whole … city is falling apart.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio says the burden lies with the federal government to provide more aid to U.S. cities for repair and replacement of aging infrastructure.