Two major water main breaks in one day highlight NYC’s infrastructure problems

MORRIS HEIGHTS, the Bronx (PIX11) — New York City had two major water main breaks on Tuesday that inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of commuters to Midtown Manhattan, and left thousands of residents in a western Bronx neighborhood without water for much of the day. 

It all underscored the need for reliable infrastructure. Even though Washington has provided more than $1 trillion toward the cause, having reliable infrastructure systems may not be as easy as it sounds, according to some people with deep knowledge of the issue. 

The Times Square water main break happened around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday on 40th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It sent cascades of water into the subway station in the square, which is a major transit hub. About three hours later, another main broke 8 miles north in the Bronx on Macombs Road, near its intersection with University Avenue.

The massive volume of water at the Morris Heights location not only flooded surrounding streets, it also inundated neighboring buildings. Ironically, even though the buildings’ basements were flooded, the residents had no water for drinking, bathing, or flushing.

Maria Asencion was headed out from her six-story apartment building near the intersection carrying three large, empty jugs.

“We have no water in the building,” she said. “I’m just gonna use my common sense, go to the park and just fill these up until they notify us” of a change in water service status, she said. 

Dozens of businesses nearby were also without water service for most of Tuesday. 

José Perez, who owns 3P Tire Shop on Macombs Road, said that the water main break impacted his ability to open up shop. 

“We’re gonna be shut down all day today,” he said, “because who knows when they’re gonna reopen the street.” 

Macombs Road remained shut down into the evening, but by 5 p.m., water service had been restored. 

The water main break and water service shutdown in the Bronx, along with the water main break in Times Square on Tuesday, were certainly bad, but an NYU professor who’s part of the university’s UNUM Project said that it’s not unusual to have up to 600 water main breaks in the city in a year.

The UNUM Project maps underground infrastructure in the city, and Professor Rae Zimmerman’s involvement in the project has given her extensive knowledge of the system, as well as detailed information about people’s interaction with it.

She said that the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year can help reduce the occurrence of dual main breaks like the city saw on Tuesday.

However, she said about the new measure, “It’s got many, many pieces, many, many moving parts, and usually maintenance of existing systems tends to have a lower priority.”

Zimmerman was by no means the only person on Tuesday with knowledge of the city’s infrastructure who was talking about the upkeep of it.

Rohit Aggarwala, the commissioner of the city’s department of environmental protection, also talked about the infrastructure system at the scene of the Times Square water main break.

“The original design and maintenance of this system is more important than the age” of it, he said, adding that the water main that had broken near Times Square was built in 1896.

“Aging infrastructure isn’t always bad,” Aggarwala continued. “It did its job for 125 years, and that’s pretty good.”

To make it as good as it needs to be, however, said Zimmerman, the infrastructure expert, prevention is a key element.

“I wish we had a better system of sensors,” she said, “to be able to identify when and where these problems are going to occur.”