Nearly two million gallons of water gushed into the busiest subway station in the city early Tuesday, officials said, after a 127-year-old water main ruptured and wrecked the morning commute on multiple lines.
Service on the 1, 2 and 3 lines was disrupted between 3 and 11 a.m., with MTA officials saying the city’s Department of Environmental Protection took 90 minutes to shut off the water after 1.8 million gallons cascaded into Times Square-42nd Street following the break at 40th Street and 7th Avenue.
In all, MTA officials said, close to 200 train trips had to be canceled.
“If this were our issue, I would be asking my team for an after-action on what we can do better,” Richard Davey, president of New York City Transit, told THE CITY. “I leave it to DEP to decide the prioritization of their investments, but suffice it to say my hope and goal is to see if there are ways to improve the response time.”
The water main break — the biggest to impact subway service in more than three years — affected more than 300,000 rush-hour riders and highlighted the challenges the city faces in replacing hundreds of miles of decrepit pipes.
“We do not know the cause,” Rohit Aggarwala, the DEP commissioner, told reporters near the site of the water main break. “We will know that after we identify the leak, cut out a section of pipe and do some forensic analysis.”
Officials acknowledged that the ruptured water main has been in use since 1896. That’s nearly a decade before the subway system opened.
“We’re all dealing with old infrastructure,” Davey said.
According to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, in the first four months of Fiscal Year 2023, the city’s replacement of water mains was down 71.1% from the previous year because the Department of Design and Construction focused on other large initiatives.
“Caution Ahead,” a 2019 report on the city’s infrastructure by the Center for an Urban Future, flagged that as of 2018, the city had not met its goal of replacing 68 miles of water mains a year for more than a decade. In total, the city has a nearly 7,000-mile network of water mains.
Jonathan Bowles, the Center’s executive director, said the city made “significant progress” in replacing water mains between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 — pointing to data that shows more than 230 miles of water mains were built or replaced during those years.
But Bowles cited city numbers showing that just 22 miles of water mains were built or replaced in FY 2022, saying that is “the wrong way” to go in a city with aged infrastructure.
“There were a handful of years where the city really stepped up and accelerated the rate of replacement,” he told THE CITY. “Today’s water main break shows we’ve got to get back to that pace — if not, water main breaks like the one in Times Square are going to come more often.”
The subway service disruptions left flustered tourists and commuters scrambling for other options and directions on how to reach their destinations.
“It’s annoying,” said Amanda Locke, 28, a visitor from Liverpool, England. “And I don’t have Wi-Fi to use my app to know where I am going.”
With the No. 1 line out of service for several hours, Mark Valme said he was delayed nearly an hour in his commute from Brooklyn to Columbia University.
“It’s a 100-year-old-plus water main, so we should be taking care of the infrastructure,” Valme said, after asking a transit worker for other transit options to 116th Street.
Following a January 2020 water main break near Lincoln Center that sent more 500,000 gallons of water into the 66th Street stop on the No. 1 line, THE CITY reported that water main breaks caused as many “major incidents” in the subway that month as in all of 2019.
“It’s just one of the prices to pay in living in a city with so much aging infrastructure,” Bowles said. “The law of averages gets you because there are 450 water main breaks a year — it’s like clockwork in New York.
“It’s just what happens.”