If you’re ever driving through Center City on Chestnut Street and you encounter traffic (so most of the time), a pro move is to take a detour down Juniper Street and drive south until you reach some more manageable traffic patterns. That’s been our strategy for years, but it has been unavailable to us since July 3rd of last year when a water main broke at the intersection of Juniper & Sansom. This shut down the businesses in the immediate area for a couple days and also closed the street to vehicles and pedestrians for much longer. When we checked in on the situation back in March, the intersection was still closed and workers at the site indicated that it wouldn’t reopen until August. Fortunately, the construction proceeded a bit ahead of schedule and the streets will be reopening today. This is obviously terrific news.

On Sansom Street, looking toward Broad
Closer to the intersection
Looking south on Juniper, over a barrier that should come down soon
Looking north on Juniper
On Juniper, looking south toward Sansom

You’re probably wondering what took so long. Water mains break all over the city every winter and most streets are repaired within a matter of days, or at worst, weeks. Per a press release from the Water Department, this break revealed some significant infrastructure issues which required far more intensive repair work than they perform after others. The work performed included: digging a 50′ x 70′ x 30′ trench, replacing 70′ of 48″ water main, replacing 100′ of 20″ water main, replacing 40′ of 8″ water main, lining 550′ of sewer, and replacing 7 valves. In addition, PGW, PECO, Veolia, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon needed to repair and restore their underground infrastructure. After all the underground work was done, they still needed to replace all the sidewalks, curbs, and ramps, and remill the streets. Moral of the story – pray that there aren’t any more water main breaks in Center City, where these sorts of repairs seem to be exceptionally complicated, time consuming, and expensive. Lest we forget, this whole thing cost the Water Department roughly $1.7M.

This yearlong repair begs the question – should we be more concerned about our water infrastructure? A story from WHYY suggests that we’re in better shape than you might think. We have roughly 3,200 miles of underground water pipes in Philadelphia, and experience an average of 267 breaks per 1,000 miles. Most of those breaks occur on smaller water mains that run through neighborhoods, because they’re more vulnerable to freezing in the winter. Another reason for breaks is that the pipes laid in the 1950s and 1960s used a weaker joint material, as opposed to pipes laid today or pipes laid a hundred years ago, like those that broke at Juniper & Sansom. Philadelphia is a national leader in determining which pipes most need replacement and PWD is budgeting to replace 1% of its pipes per year, which is a strong replacement rate for a major city.

This isn’t to say that we won’t see another massive water main break in Center City – surely we will. And that break could prove to be just as costly and complicated to repair as the break at Juniper & Sansom. But in a city where it often feels like our infrastructure is under-maintained and underfunded, it seems we can at least hang our hats on the efforts of our Water Department with regard to pipe replacements. Now if we could only get some potholes filled this summer, we’ll really start feeling good about life.