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Downtown Sinkhole Prompts Concern About City's Underground Infrastructure

crews work to repair a hole in a street

In the wake of a water main break that caused a large sinkhole in downtown Springfield earlier this month, city councilors have called for a series of meetings to discuss the status of the city’s underground infrastructure.

City Councilor Kateri Walsh stood at the intersection of Main and Bridge streets, which was closed to traffic for a week after the water main break, and observed that a new innovation center, a restored Union Station, and the MGM casino are all under construction within just a few blocks of where the more than century-old pipe failed.

"Considering the new developments coming online, and the important and vital current businesses invested here, I thought as chair of Maintenance and Development it is imperative we wrap our arms around the state of our infrastructure," she said.

Walsh said she plans to schedule a series of “roundtable discussions with the appropriate parties” to discuss strategies for the city’s aging infrastructure to avoid the type of disruptions that followed the May 5th water main break.

Councilors Bud Williams and Adam Gomez, also members of the Maintenance and Development Committee joined Walsh, the committee chairperson, in announcing the meetings on the status of the city’s underground.

Williams said there has to be a proactive approach to prevent water main breaks.

" Can you imagine, MGM is up and running and this happens, asked Williams?  " This is real serious and I think this committee will be proactive to bring a coalition together so we can all work on this."

The water was shut off quickly before it flooded basements and there was no loss of water service anywhere downtown. But, the sinkhole damaged conduits carrying electric and communications cables.  Power was off for a day in a downtown office tower and a hotel.  It took a week to repair the underground utilities before the intersection could be paved and reopened.  

Walsh said she was struck when she read the water pipe had been installed during the presidency of William Howard Taft.

" It reinforced and put into perspective how old these pipes are. Certainly technology has improved  since 1909 and in 2016 we do not want to jeopardize our exciting projects."

The water and sewer system is under the jurisdiction of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, which uses revenue collected from ratepayers to maintain the system.

" One of the things we'll look at is funding sources. Nobody wants ( higher) rates, but we do want people to be safe and we do not want these situations occurring here in the city," said Walsh.

The commission has spent $231 million on capital projects in the past 10 years, according to information released by the office of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

 Springfield Department of Public Works Director Chris Cignoli said major investments are regularly being made in the water and sewer system, much of it to address federal clean-water mandates.

" Everybody says there is no plan to address it. It has been going on," Cignoli said in an interview.

He said the underground infrastructure may be old, but it is not in poor condition.

" When something happens it is not because the pipes just fail. It is usually because there is construction going on around it, or something hit it," explained Cignoli. " The system , in general,is in very, very good condition."

Gomez said he’s concerned about natural gas leaks.

" We want to make sure our residents are safe and that people will want to invest in Springfield," said Gomez.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities says more than 500 gas leaks were reported in western Massachusetts in 2015.  Most are classified as “non-hazardous” and are not required to be repaired for a year or longer.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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