Richmond Underground: Rare access to aging infrastructure

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - How bad is the city's infrastructure? We've seen scenes of water gushing into the street after an underground pipe has burst, leaving people without water and traffic diverted -- all until crews can fix the problem.

Is Richmond literally crumbling beneath our feet?

You don't have to dig deep for a look into Richmond's historic past, but when you do, you unearth the very foundation of this city's existence. Like most of the oldest city's on the east coast. Richmond, is up against the clock, the weather and a pocketbook when it comes to crumbling infrastructure.

"For a utilities person, the city of Richmond is a fascinating place to work. The infrastructure dates back into the mid 1800s so every time you dig you're digging a little slice of history," said Bob Steidel, the City's director of Public Utilities.

With more than 4,000 miles of water, sewer and gas lines, his office decides which pipes need to be replaced and in what order.

Water lines are the first to give. In fact, over the last three years water main breaks have soared. There were 252 breaks in the city last year.

Public works says it's not that breaks are on the rise, it's that Richmond's winter temperatures have been on the decline.

"What you're doing all winter long is fighting the power of water. And you can't win that battle," said NBC12 Meteorologist Andrew Freiden.

Not when the water can seep into the cracks. Freezing, and thawing, freezing again. Attacking the infrastructure.

Freiden says Richmond's up and down winters put more stress on the pipes underground than most other cities in the United States.

"Everyday you start from maybe 28 or 30 degrees, you go up to then you go down again. And as you cross over this line, each time you do that puts a lot of stress on the pavement and a lot of stress on infrastructure," he said.

The city gave NBC12 an up-close look into a water main replacement project in South Richmond on Woodlawn Drive. The crew was replacing a pipe from the late 1950s.

There are 454 miles of cast-iron water main that need to be replaced. To do it all would cost the city $272 million.

"No city budgets that amount of money at one time. We try to do it in increments so that we're doing the wisest renewal in the infrastructure at the best time," Steidel said.

The city spends about $2 million a year on water mains, which helps replace about three and a half miles. At the current rate, it'll take the city 130 years to get to every pipe.

Going deeper underground is even more expensive and sewer lines are usually at the bottom.

"When you cut through the street, the last thing you come to is the sewer lines. You either have to move everything above it or you have be able to work around," said Steidel.

We visited a sanitary sewer project on Patrick Avenue in North Richmond.

"It is in real good shape for something this old," Steidel said.

The sewer lines here are at least 60 years old, some date back 100 years in Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill. Instead of being replaced, because it's so expensive, these sewer lines are being re-lined, essentially given a new inside.

A camera is dropped down the manhole. Much like a video game, it's operated by a joystick from a truck, giving a view inside a sewer pipe.

And where does it all go?

The lowest point in the city: This Shockoe Retention Basin. This is where everything underground comes winds up. Storm water runoff and sewage.

"This is the oldest part of the city. That's a 29-foot arch sewer and this is where the city of Richmond has always drained," Steidel said.

Rachel asks: "You notice ah, an odor here. What are we smelling?"

Steidel says: "The odor here is combined sanitary sewer and storm water."

It's not pleasant, but this is probably the most cared for and watched over piece of infrastructure in the city. Specialized camera are sent through every few years checking for problems, leaks and cracks. Some of the concrete conduits date back to the early 1800s.

They're old, but they still work. As long as that's the case, the city engineers says they'll use them. Otherwise they'll go behind those doors most of us never see, down the manholes, into the trenches, delving deep into the history that keeps this city running.

"You start it all over again. It just never ends and it shouldn't, it shouldn't end," Steidel said.

To replace every gas, water and sewer line in need of repair would cost the city upwards of $1 billion.

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