The death toll from the explosion that leveled two buildings in East Harlem on Wednesday has now risen to eight, with at least 60 people injured and several still missing. The investigation to determine the cause of this tragic incident will continue after the rubble is cleared and everyone is accounted for, but questions about whether New York’s aging infrastructure contributed to the gas leak that likely caused the explosion have already begun to surface. In fact, a damning report from the Center for an Urban Future on badly needed investments to NYC’s infrastructure was released to the public just a day before the deadly event in East Harlem. The study finds that the average age of the city’s 6,300 miles of gas mains is 56 years old and that 60 percent of the pipelines “are made of old and outmoded materials like unlined cast iron, making them highly susceptible to leaks and breaks.” According to the paper, leaks in the gas pipeline system cause Con Edison to lose more than two percent of gas every year.
But gas lines are far from the only 20th century components overdue for a 21st century upgrade. Center for an Urban Future‘s report finds that over 1,000 miles of New York City water mains are more than 100 years old. In fact, investigators in the East Harlem explosion are focusing on a water main break that occurred in front of the apartment buildings. The water main break created a large sinkhole that could have been involved in the gas line rupture. Last year, there were 403 reported water main breaks in NYC.
“In some cases, the infrastructure in New York is so old we don’t even know where it is under the street,” says city planner and historian Alexander Garvin in the study. “There can be a water main break in lower Manhattan and our engineers won’t be able to find it.”
Other essential infrastructural elements in need of investments include crumbling city streets (in Manhattan, nearly 43 percent of roads are in “poor” or “fair” condition), century-old bridges (in the Bronx, there are 52 structurally deficient bridges and the average year the borough’s bridges were built was 1942), 6,437 miles of sewage lines constructed 84 years ago, and aging schools in all five boroughs with an average year built of 1948.
The report concludes that the minimum cost to maintain and repair existing NYC infrastructure is $47.3 billion over the next four or five years and that there is a $34.2 billion funding gap. The Center for Urban Future recommends that NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo work together on a “major public works program to tackle the city’s aging infrastructure” and create blue-collar jobs. The more than dozen recommendations for fixing New York’s crumbling infrastructure also include refocusing capital spending on repair needs, identifying new dedicated revenue sources to pay for infrastructure projects, implementing East River tolls or congestion fees, advocating for more federal support, creating an infrastructure bank and other ideas to move New York’s infrastructure into the 21st century.
Images via New York City Fire Department (FDNY)