The Sky is Falling: Manhattan's Aging Infrastructure Causes Explosion and Concern


Last week, an explosion beneath a street near Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan sent a giant stream of scalding, brownish steam up through the street and into the sky. The explosion caused a large crater, roughly 35-40 feet wide, and was so strong that it flipped over a tow truck. The cloud of steam and hail of debris from the explosion lasted more than two hours and raised concerns of asbestos contamination. The cause of the blast? Not as some rushed to assert, a terrorist attack, but an underground steam pipe constructed in 1924 that exploded when too much cold rain water leaked on it. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged this when he stated, "There is no reason to believe this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure."

New York has endured several pipe explosions in the recent past, including one in 2000 near Washington Square that blew a 15-foot crater in the street and one in 1989 that killed three people and sent mud and debris several stories into the air. However, the problem is not exclusive to New York City. Instead, as Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at the University of California, Irvine, said, "We have an aging infrastructure in this country, and we are not doing enough to maintain it and replace it. What you saw happen in New York will happen in all types of infrastructure." 

As we pointed out in May, the U.S. infrastructure is an economic disaster waiting to happen. The extent of the problem was pointed out by an Urban Land Institute report and the American Society for Civil Engineers, which estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure into good condition. It seems like a pretty steep price tag, but let's consider the cost of the latest infrastructure explosion: 1) millions of dollars just for clean up and repair of the crater, 2) significant losses for businesses in the area of the explosions-- there are 125 ground-floor retailers in the area, and 3) loss of one life and injuries to more than 40 people. Instead of giving tax breaks to the rich and cutting crucial spending, investing that money into infrastructure repair can help prevent accidents like the one last week. Not to mention that repairing bridges and roads, for instance, creates more jobs than building new roads or bridges. The sooner we start repairing our infrastructure, the sooner things will stop exploding.


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