Fixing Our Aging Infrastructure, One Pipe At A Time | WAMC

Fixing Our Aging Infrastructure, One Pipe At A Time

May 27, 2016

Now that the nice weather is here, construction crews are a common sight. But in many cases, workers are digging up roadways to repair aging water and sewer pipes. Old infrastructure can create new challenges as well as inconveniences.

This week a sinkhole opened up unexpectedly at one of Albany's busiest intersections: an old brick manhole dating to the 1870s, far below the road surface at the intersection of New Scotland Avenue and Madison Avenue, collapsed, opening up a large crack in the pavement and a 20- to 30-foot hole, forcing the streets to be closed for days.

Joe Coffey with the city water department tells Newschannel 13:  “You start digging. This is so old. And there was a lot of... We're finding some pipes that are not on anybody's maps.”

Albany City Treasurer Darius Shahinfar, pictured here during his run for office.
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Crews had to widen the opening, cut through layers of old pavement and steel trolley tracks before they could assess the situation and proceed with repairs.  Citizens of the fiscally-strapped capital city may have dodged a bullet — this time.   Albany City Treasurer Darius Shahinfar :   "The water department is taking a look at it. And they have a separate budget from the city. And separate revenue sources. So there's a likelihood that at least a portion of if not all of the extra costs aren't gonna be directly borne by the city taxpayers. It does underscore the problem that we have in old upstate industrial cities, that we have an aging infrastructure. And if bad things happen to that infrastructure, unless we have reserves or a way to access monies to repair a problem, we don't have a way to deal with them."

Congressman Paul Tonko has made the region’s infrastructure problems a priority. He stopped by Troy in January as crews struggled to patch a huge water main break in Lansingburgh that sent gallons upon gallons of water spewing into the streets, affecting the water supply to neighboring communities.   "I am the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee of the environment and the economy. And we have for the last several months, better part of the year, have been advancing this notion of investing in the hidden infrastructure, often times out of sight, out of mind."

The Democrat vowed he'd "search high and low" for a solution.  "We have systems that include wooden pipes. We over 140-year-old infrastructure in this given congressional district. With pipe bursts we have lost millions of gallons of water. And so this is yet another example of a national problem that requires national solutions."

Troy Mayor Parick Madden is trying to be optimistic.   "It's not as though our infrastructure is crumbling. It is aging, in places, but, for example, I was at the water plant last week. I was given a tour of the facility, an opportunity to ask a bunch of questions, and it's a very impressive operation. It's really a crown jewel for us, and it's been very well maintained over the years. We do have some old pipes under our streets, and they go periodically. However, this past winter I think we had probably about 50 percent of the breaks that we had the winter before. So it's not that Troy is falling apart, but, this year unfortunately we had one of the bigger ones let go, and that was quite newsworthy, and was probably covered to a degree that exceeded its newsworthiness."

Meanwhile, the costs of fixing America's old pipes continues to grow: The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take nearly $300 billion in capital investment over the next 20 years to get the nation's waste and stormwater systems up to date. The society pegs the cost of replacing every drinking water pipe that has exceeded its life expectancy at about $1 trillion.