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Published: 7/2/2003

Water main breaks spout traffic woes

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Officials blamed the freshly broken mains there and on South St. Clair Street in front of the main post office on leaks springing from pipes subjected to pressure changes from a 30-inch main break nearly two weeks ago. That break flooded the Erie Street Market and some other buildings nearby.

“Is this another water main break? Now I can't get home, or to work,” said Julie Bellman of Maumee, as her car simmered in a backup yesterday at the Monroe-Erie intersection during the evening rush hour.

The 30-inch water main break at Erie, Lafayette Street, and the Anthony Wayne Trail on the night of June 20 has been Ms. Bellman's getting-to-work obstacle each morning commute since.

And Robert Stevenson, director of the city department of public utilities, said it's the reason for as many as a dozen smaller pavement geysers that have erupted downtown since then.

Conditions at Monroe and Erie would have been even worse had Erie not already been closed by the earlier break two blocks away, which has forced traffic coming into downtown from northbound I-75 and the Anthony Wayne Trail to detour for 12 days as of this morning.

The good news is those detours should end this afternoon, Mr. Stevenson said. Concrete pavement at the busy Erie-Lafayette-Trail intersection was poured on Monday and should be ready for traffic by the end of today, he said.

Mr. Stevenson also expected traffic on Monroe to return to normal by this morning. But he warned that more leaks are possible during the next few days.

“You only know you have a leak when it surfaces,” the utilities director said. “When you change water directions, these things happen.”

Once again, however, yesterday's breaks left no occupied buildings without water service. Mr. Stevenson said most busy downtown buildings have dual taps so that if one pipe is shut down for repair, water service can continue through the other. While staff at the post office said they were concerned about their water being shut off as a result of the break outside, the utilities director said that was unlikely.

Although many of downtown's water mains have been in the ground for 50 or even 100 years, old age is not the only explanation for the rash of failures, Mr. Stevenson said.

A fully pressurized pipe exerts force against the earth surrounding it, he said, and when that pressure changes, weak spots in the pipe can fail. The weak spots can be caused by any of several factors, including manufacturing flaws in the metal, stray electrical current that corrodes the pipe, freeze-thaw cycles that shift the earth, and even soil contamination that leaches into an area and causes corrosion.

“There are pipes that are 100 years old that look like they did the day you put in them in the ground,” Mr. Stevenson said. He noted that last week in San Diego, a 30-inch main less than 30 years old burst, blocking a major city street.

Flow through the 30-inch main under Erie was restored Saturday, Mr. Stevenson said, and the two breaks yesterday occurred at locations likely to have been stressed by putting water back into that main under pressure.

The Erie-Monroe break occurred on the opposite corner from a break in a different eight-inch main last Wednesday that affected eastbound traffic on Monroe. Both connect to the big main under Erie.

For most of the day yesterday, Monroe was closed to all westbound traffic, but by the evening commute, cones were set up to establish one lane in each direction.

Even so, westbound traffic was backed up to Summit Street shortly after 5, and tempers occasionally flared when cars bulled their way into the queue from intersecting streets - regardless of traffic-light indications. A recent re-timing of the light at Erie and Monroe allowed about a dozen cars to get through on each Monroe green - one or two more if drivers were alert, but fewer when cell-phone gabbers reacted slowly to traffic ahead.

Locations of other breaks last week included Monroe in front of the Toledo Museum of Art; North St. Clair by the Valentine Theatre; Canton Street and Woodruff Avenue; Spielbusch Avenue and Cherry Street; and Huron Street between The Blade and Government Center. Mr. Stevenson said he did not have an exact count or list of locations for the recent downtown breaks. But he maintained that only the location, not the count, is truly unusual.



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