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Water Main Break Disrupts Traffic, Floods Shops

Crews with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission work at the site of a water main break at Riggs Road and University Boulevard in Langley Park.
Crews with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission work at the site of a water main break at Riggs Road and University Boulevard in Langley Park. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008; Page B05

A water main break yesterday in Langley Park that caused traffic headaches at the busy intersection of Riggs Road and University Boulevard was the result of a rupture of an aging pipe that should have been replaced years ago, a utility official said.

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Mike McGill, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said a 24-inch main ruptured about 1 a.m., causing the asphalt in the two northbound lanes of Riggs Road to buckle and damaging one of the two southbound lanes. The break also left a few nearby businesses, 20 condominium residents and two homes without water, and flooded streets and shops.

The incident forced drivers to maneuver through parking lots in shopping centers, office parks and apartment complexes to access 23rd Avenue and University Boulevard. A WSSC official said the pipe had been repaired last night. The northbound lanes and a southbound lane of Riggs Road will probably be closed until tomorrow morning, officials said.

McGill said yesterday's break was not the first for the 58-year-old water main. He said there were three breaks in the pipe in 1999 and one in 2000.

Yesterday's was the third break of a WSSC water main since Sunday, when one broke on Piney Branch Road. On Tuesday, an 83-year-old 12-inch main burst beneath Route 450 in Bladensburg.

"While these mains have a 75- to 100-year life span, sometimes they don't reach those years," McGill said.

The WSSC has said for years that its infrastructure needs to be replaced. The utility's pipes had a record 2,129 breaks in 2007. This fiscal year, which began this month, the WSSC expects to replace 78 miles of water and sewer pipes, a fraction of the nearly 11,000 miles of pipe in the system. About 25 percent of the water pipes are more than 50 years old.

"We need to switch our focus from repair, repair, repair to replace," McGill said. "But that costs some dollars."

In February, WSSC approved an 8 percent increase in water rates, but after a public outcry the commissioners decided against adopting a fee that the utility's manager had recommended to cover the cost of new pipes.

Toan Chung, owner of Lee Hair Salon on University Boulevard, sat in a chair near the front door of his business as workers pumped water and mud from the floor.

Chung said that his salon was surrounded by more than a foot of water yesterday and that much of the sludge seeped into the shop.

"The business is open, but the customer cannot come in," Chung said as drivers used the shopping center's parking to get around Riggs Road.

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