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A Terrible Winter Wreaks Havoc On Roads, Pipes And City Budgets

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A Terrible Winter Wreaks Havoc On Roads, Pipes And City Budgets

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A Terrible Winter Wreaks Havoc On Roads, Pipes And City Budgets

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. It's back. Winter weather, that is. People in parts of the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast are digging out from yet another heavy snowstorm. The physical toll of this brutal winter includes potholes, broken water mains and other infrastructure problems. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The spring sounds of robins chirping, lawnmowers droning, the crack of a baseball bat, those are still a few weeks away in Chicago. Here, we have this reminding us we're still not done yet with the brutal winter. A crew from the gas company is tearing up the street to fix a gas leak underground caused by the deep winter freeze.

And there are other utility crews making emergency winter-related repairs all around the city, including these workers from the city's water department who have dug a deep trench in the frozen parkway to get at a leaking water line.

JOHN POLISHAK: Crazy, crazy busy.

SCHAPER: John Polishak is a foreman for the Chicago Department of Water Management.

POLISHAK: Everybody's been working like 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's exhausting.

SCHAPER: Record cold temperatures this winter pushed the frost line more than five feet deep, which is the depth at which most waterlines are buried. As the ground freezes, it expands, pushing the frozen soil against the aging water pipes. Polishak shows me a casualty.

POLISHAK: That little hole, that's the leak.

SCHAPER: He's holding a rusting piece of pipe and joint called a buffalo box.

POLISHAK: You see how this is supposed to be straight? You see how the frost, it literally holds this thing up and it broke the joint.

SCHAPER: That deep frost line is also freezing city water pipes more than any other winter in recent memory, says Chicago water commissioner Tom Power.

TOM POWERS: In 2013, we had roughly, at this time, round numbers, about 1,000 calls. This year, it's over 5,200.

SCHAPER: And Powers says if the weather starts to warm, another problem develops.

POWERS: These aged pipes, when the temperature fluctuates back and forth, we see water main breaks.

SCHAPER: And by aged pipes, Powers means they're really old.

POWERS: We've got 4,400 miles of water main across the city of Chicago, about a quarter of that is 100 years or older.

SCHAPER: And it's not just water pipes, but aging catch basins and sewer lines are crumbling, too, some of which are so old, they're made of brick. And, of course, potholes are opening up on roads and bridges everywhere. And it isn't just happening in Chicago. The northern half of the country and even some parts of the South that were hammered by the rare Polar vortex are feeling it, too.

JAMES BROOKS: The infrastructure has taken a beating as a result of this winter and it was already in a somewhat fragile state before the cold and snow hit.

SCHAPER: James Brooks is with the National League of Cities and he says the nation as a whole has been under-investing in infrastructure for years. And he says now the added cost of fixing up what the heavy snows and bitter cold wrecked will be hefty at a time many cities budgets are just as fragile as their infrastructure.

BROOKS: They have begun to stabilize their financial health only to now be whacked again very hard by the weather at a time when they do not have the personnel in place. They do not have the equipment in the place and, obviously, they don't have the resources in place to really be able to address this fully.

SCHAPER: The American Society of Civil Engineers agrees our energy, water and transportation infrastructure is in poor shape. The group rated the overall condition of the nation's infrastructure as a D plus before this brutal winter and former ASCE president Andrew Herman says the effects of repeated freeze-thaw cycles, heavy plowing and corrosives, such as road salt, exacerbated problems.

But Herman says the chilly clouds that brought us all this misery this winter may have a silver lining of sorts.

ANDREW HERMAN: Well, I don't wish a pothole on anyone. I hope it does open their eyes that, yes, we need to do something about our infrastructure.

SCHAPER: Herman and others say this is a critical time to make greater investments in making our infrastructure more resilient, either with higher taxes, more tolls or both because climate change threatens to make our winter and summer weather more extreme. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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