A severe winter breaks budgets as well as pipes
SYRACUSE -- Century-old water mains here have ruptured behind City Hall, popped in residential areas and split under the city's bar and restaurant district. The mayor says she has personally reported three breaks, while exhausted crews work 18-hour shifts in subfreezing temperatures to repair the damage.
In Detroit, a break in a 30-inch main flooded a southwest neighborhood on Tuesday, turning streets into streams and stalling cars in water above their hubcaps. As city workers pumped away the water, and police officers and firefighters rescued stranded motorists, icebergs formed above the blacktop, locking some vehicles into place until the next thaw.
The exceptionally cold and stormy winter battering the Midwest, South and Northeast has forced cities and states to put road crews on double shifts and step up purchases of asphalt, trying to keep up with an epidemic of potholes. They have also bought and spread so much salt that there is a shortage in the Mid-Atlantic States, with more storms expected.
With revenues and staffing still below pre-recession levels, many local and state governments face a new financial strain from storm-related increases in spending on overtime pay, contractors and supplies. On Saturday, another snowfall covered the Northeast, a reminder that winter is far from finished.
''Cities still do not have a lot of cash available, so this particular storm season is having a really severe impact on their budgets,'' said James Brooks, a director for community development and infrastructure at the National League of Cities. ''We've also had many years of disinvestment in things like roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, which makes them more vulnerable when something like this happens.''
Stephanie A. Miner, the Syracuse mayor, said such things are too often overlooked when politicians want to spend money on economic development. ''You don't cut ribbons for new water mains, but that's really what matters,'' she said.
Northern regions tend to have older pipes and bridges, while areas farther south tend to be ill-equipped for snow drifts and subfreezing temperatures that can snarl traffic and buckle pavement. Officials around the country said the costs would be steep, but many said they would not worry about tabulating them until the crisis was over.
''We don't ask those questions, but we do keep receipts,'' Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in an interview. ''At this point in time, you're putting out the fires.'' He said he expected to tap into the state's emergency fund to pay for storm response. Local governments will also have to bear some of the burden, he said, and should not expect the state to pick up the whole tab.
Whoever is paying, the repair work will be extensive and expensive.
In Baltimore, 353 water mains ruptured in January, about one-third as many as in all of 2013. South Carolina officials estimated that a single weather system last month drained $2 million from the state's budget. A 137-year-old main that popped in Lower Manhattan turned some of the most stylish streets in Greenwich Village into a temporary Venice, and a break in Boston's Chinatown nearly swallowed a public works truck.
Chicago budgeted $20 million for 2014 to plow snow and salt roads, but it has already spent $25 million. City crews are filling potholes at double the rate of last year -- which means buying twice as much patching material for that purpose -- yet drivers are still doing what look like drunken swerves to avoid yawning gaps in the streets. So far, according to the National Weather Service, the city has had its third-snowiest and fourth-coldest winter since the service began keeping track in 1872.
Pennsylvania has used road salt at a pace 24 percent ahead of normal, an additional cost of more than $8 million so far, and on Thursday, Gov. Tom Corbett deployed elements of the National Guard to help with an emergency response, which means another expense. Maine's Department of Transportation ordinarily spends about $15.7 million a year clearing roads of snow, but ''right now we're already up to $21.8 million,'' said Ted Talbot, a department spokesman. ''If it continues along this line, we'd have to curb some spring maintenance, like tree trimming, some signage potentially.''
Detroit -- the largest American municipality ever to enter bankruptcy, and yet to exit it -- was already suffering from an aging, neglected infrastructure; Darryl Latimer, deputy director of the city's Water and Sewerage Department, said that after a wave of retirements, the department's staff, like the budget for water main repair, was not up to the job. To those burdens, this winter added persistent subzero temperatures and heavy snow, contributing to about 500 water main breaks in January, compared with about 300 a year earlier, forcing the city to hire outside crews to try to keep up.
The major break last week in Detroit, in a pipe dating to about 1890, sent water gushing through gaps in the pavement in front of a grocery store, and submerged streets in a 12-block radius to a depth of as much as two feet. A police car was among those stranded until a front-end loader pushed it out of the water, an officer still inside.
It took hours to shut off the flood and pump out most of the remaining water, Mr. Latimer said. ''We had to tow some of the cars out of the way so we could get to our manholes,'' he said, and even then, the valves controlling the flow of water had frozen.
Cold weather is tough on water systems because as the water chills, metal pipes contract. At the same time, frost and ice cause the ground to expand, adding pressure.
In addition to the direct costs to governments, harsh weather can also mean lower tax revenue by slowing economic activity. A downtown Syracuse water main break on -- no kidding -- Water Street left a deep crater in front of the Miss Syracuse diner, surrounded by Water Department barricades. ''It doesn't appear to be a lot,'' the owner, Joe Todisco, said of the business he has lost, ''but it's a lot to me.''
Across the street, a bar, J. Ryan's, managed to stay open even while its water supply was cut off, because a local brewer, Middle Ages, sent over kegs filled with water.
On a recent day, with temperatures in the teens, a six-man repair crew on the city's north side, equipped with shovels, a pump and allegedly waterproof boots, searched the bottom of a six-foot-deep pit for the leak producing muddy, bubbling water. The men's breath fogged the air, and water froze their clothes stiff, but they kept digging and the water kept percolating.
Syracuse has had at least 100 main breaks since the start of the year, a large number for a city of 145,000, including those breaks that the mayor happened upon mayor.''They've all been doozies, too,'' said Paul Trovato, the city's superintendent of water operations. ''They're old, and it was cold. And they just started breaking.''