Cities Breaking Down

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Timothy A. Clark / AFP / Getty

A destroyed tow truck sits in a hole in the ground at the site of an underground steam pipe explosion 19 July 2007 in New York.

A burst pipe in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday stirred the anxieties of New Yorkers who have experienced plenty of them since 9/11. But given the decrepit state of the country's urban infrastructure, the debacle could very well have been at a bridge in Boston or a sewer in Philadelphia. Indeed, the Manhattan steam-pipe geyser might be compared to the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 blackout of the Eastern Seaboard: accidents and catastrophes that might have been prevented with the right funding and political priorities.

Urban planning experts say America's older cities are modern-day Pompeiis — within range of volcanoes of infrastructure failures like New York's. On Wednesday, a pipe, laid in 1924, exploded near Grand Central station, killing one person and injuring 30. Maintaining a sewer system is hardly a sexy political issue, but years of funding neglect and a subsequent lack of maintenance nationwide have left many of the country's engineering systems unprepared to handle future stresses. "We have an aging infrastructure in this country, and we are not doing enough to maintain it and replace it," said Sarah Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at University of California-Irvine. "What you saw happen in New York will happen in all types of infrastructures."

The issue is widespread, said Dan LeClair, who teaches city planning at Boston University. "It's not just pipes," he said. "It's bridges, it's roads, it's electrical systems, it's a variety of things that can happen in a man-made environment that can have a disastrous effect." A recent report by the Urban Land Institute determined that America's comparatively low investment in various transportation infrastructure — airports, public transit, railway systems, roads and bridges — has created an "emerging crisis." Of the 30 state transportation planning directors surveyed for the report, 25 said the nation's transportation infrastructure is incapable of meeting the nation's needs over the next decade.

Rarely does infrastructure fail as spectacularly as it did Wednesday, when plumes of smoke billowed as high as the 77-story Chrysler Building. Deterioration takes place slowly, and often, when something breaks down, the impact is minimal — for example, wisps of steam coming out of a city manhole due to a leaky pipe. Bill Miller, who worked for over 30 years as an administrative engineer with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, says the city tended to act only after the fact. "They respond to these systems when problems appear."

The costs of maintenance and replacement of old systems can appear prohibitive. (To provide some scale: New York City budgets roughly $2 billion a year for maintenance and development projects.) But those costs may be paltry compared, in an extreme case, to the more than $81 billion in damages after Hurricane Katrina swept floodwaters into New Orleans and the gulf coast. Yesterday's pipe explosion in Manhattan may cost New York City millions not only in repair and police and fire department overtime but in likely lawsuits from businesses and individuals.

Miller, now a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Temple University, said the inaction surrounding deteriorating infrastructure is due not only to the difficulty in getting to the antiquated and often deeply embedded and entangled systems but also to a lack of political will. "Paving a street is easy because you can go to it and do it, and frankly it's more politically visible," said Miller, adding that all Philadelphia streets are paved regularly while sewers and other systems are treated reactively, rather than preventively. "Out of sight, out of mind is a real accurate way to look at how city funds are spent." Until something dramatic happens. Says LeClair of Boston University: "Often times these events can be helpful in getting people to take action."

With reporting by Madison Gray