Hidden, aging infrastructure strikes D.C. commuters

WASHINGTON — The downtown water pipe that burst Tuesday morning, disrupting travel on Metro’s Silver, Orange and Blue lines, is an old pipe, but not as old as some pipes in the DC Water system.

“We have some pipes that date back to the 1860’s — to the Civil War,” says John Lisle, chief of external affairs for DC Water. “The median age of our water pipes is 79 years old, which means half of them are older than that and half are newer.”

D.C., like many other communities across the nation, has a problem with aging infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there are 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States because of aging pipes.

“Last January was a pretty busy month, somewhere around 595 breaks. Folks will remember that was the Polar Vortex,” says Jerry Irvine, public affairs manager for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Irvine says the water pipe that ruptured near Westmoreland Circle in Bethesda last week was installed in 1934.

Both DC Water and WSSC have programs in place to replace aging pipes, but by most measure, the work is going on at a snail’s pace.

“We have stepped up our replacement of those pipes to 1 percent a year. But even at that rate, it could take 100 years to replace all of the pipes in the city,” says Lisle of DC Water.

WSSC is also replacing its aging pipes at a 1 percent rate – 55 miles of pipe each year in the 5,500-mile system.

Both utilities say the replacement pace is slow because of the cost, entirely borne by water customers.

“Replacing the infrastructure really falls to the rate payers. It’s not something that the city pays for. It’s not something that the federal government assists with,” says Lisle.

“We just can’t put all of that on our customers at one time,” Irvine says.

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