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Md. Road, Flooded Last Week As Pipe Burst, Reopens Today

Emergency personnel rescue trapped motorists from a flooded street after a 66-inch water main burst in Montgomery County Tuesday morning.

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By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

As River Road reopens this morning, the freshly striped asphalt will belie the eight frenzied days of round-the-clock labor, the emergency meetings to approve first one repair contract and then another nearly three times as large, the 14-ton replacement parts and the forbearance of neighbors who spent their holidays listening to construction noise.

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After an explosive water main break last week along the Montgomery County road stranded motorists in a sudden flood, construction crews wrapped up repair work before commuters return Monday.

"You're taking what probably should be a one-and-a-half to two-month job and jamming it into a week," said James Holcomb, vice president of construction for Ross Contracting, the Mount Airy company that did the work.

It was no small task. Water exploded out of the steel-reinforced concrete pipe about 8 a.m. Dec. 23 with such force that it blew away 15 feet of earth above it, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials said. Although River Road's basic structure remained intact, the torrent washed away 2,000 linear feet of the road's shoulders and created ravines out of the shallow drainage ditches on either side, leaving the potential for further erosion.

An inspection of the pipe, which is 5 1/2 feet in diameter, revealed cracks and other flaws that required five sections to be replaced, WSSC officials said. Each 16-foot section weighs 14 tons. One part had to be trucked up from Florida.

The high-speed repair effort was in full swing long before the water began to recede. At 2 p.m. the day of the break, a bid process began that would typically take a month for a project that size. It was condensed into two hours, Holcomb said. By 4:20 p.m., his boss, Dan Ross, had been awarded the contract with the lowest bid of $510,000. The contract was amended Sunday to $1.3 million after WSSC officials said they determined that additional repairs were needed. The initial prediction that work would be finished in a few days was pushed back a week.

Because contractors don't keep extra equipment or crews on hand, it typically takes several days to mobilize for a large job. Ross's company put two other projects on hold and, by that Tuesday evening, it was moving in equipment, materials and crews from Maryland suburbs, Holcomb said. Employees canceled vacation and family plans to work through Christmas and potentially New Year's. Officials would not say how much of the $1.3 million contract went toward wages.

WSSC required that work continue round-the-clock. Even more so than in most water main breaks, timing was critical. River Road, a major artery through western Montgomery, carries up to 20,000 vehicles daily, many those of commuters heading between the District and its suburbs, chiefly Bethesda and Potomac. Although detours sufficed during the holiday traffic lull, commuting and school traffic will return with a vengeance Monday morning.

"It's not like it's on the side of the road where you can take your time," said John White, a WSSC spokesman. "This is a major commuter thoroughfare. We were conscious of that."

Some work will continue over the next week, and White advised drivers to use caution. More delays could occur when the section that was closed, between Seven Locks Road and Bradley Boulevard, is repaved, he said.

WSSC engineers found corrosion near the break, White said, but had not determined what caused it. The water utility's aging infrastructure has drawn scrutiny, but White said the 44-year-old pipe was expected to last 70 to 90 years.

"This pipe is not that old, actually, as pipes go," White said. "We don't think it's just old age."


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