Burst water main on New York Ave. creates commuter havoc

A 79-year-old water main broke early Wednesday on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington. Traffic was snarled throughout the day.
A 79-year-old water main broke early Wednesday on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington. Traffic was snarled throughout the day. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

A pre-dawn water main break on New York Avenue on Wednesday created a hellish traffic mess throughout the day on a street that is a commuter's purgatory on the best of days.

The 79-year-old, 12-inch main burst about 3:30 a.m. below the eastbound lanes on the major commuter artery, causing a major backup in Northeast Washington as people drove into the city in the morning and utter misery as they headed home in the afternoon.

It was unclear whether the difficult repair would be completed by Thursday's morning commute. But Karyn LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for the District Department of Transportation, said Wednesday night that officials were hopeful.

Alan R. Heymann, a spokesman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, said workers expected to finish replacing the pipe by midnight. Crews then would begin to backfill the trench and repair the road, procedures that probably would take several hours, he said.

Repairs were complicated because gas and electric lines were in the area of the main, so workers had to dig with shovels, Heymann said earlier.

John Lisle of DDOT said the surge of water early Wednesday damaged a pair of traffic signal control boxes. He said one was replaced and the other repaired so that all lights would be functioning when the road is ready to reopen.

Heymann said that no residences lost water and that the number of businesses without water on the commercial strip was limited because crews closed five valves in the immediate area of the break.

The DDOT urged homeward-bound drivers Wednesday to use alternative routes, but the options -- Rhode Island Avenue to South Dakota and H Street to Bladensburg Road -- back up with traffic during a routine evening rush hour.

On a normal day, about 60,000 vehicles use that section of New York Avenue, a major thoroughfare for D.C. residents and those commuting to and from Prince George's County and the counties beyond it. During peak hours, traffic moves at a stop-and-go pace for more than three miles between Seventh Street NW and Interstate 295 east of the Anacostia River.

The cast-iron water main, installed in 1931, was three years older than the median age of water mains in the District.

"We've got a number of them that are 100 to 125 years old," Heymann said. "That helps explain why we have so many water main breaks."

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