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East Harlem Explosion Sheds Light on City's Aging Infrastructure

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Wednesday's gas explosion has shined a light on the city's aging infrastructure, but while attention may now be focused on the issue, actually doing something about it will take tens of billions of dollars and a whole lot of political will that is currently in short supply. NY1's Bobby Cuza filed the following report.

If New Yorkers were surprised to learn that the gas mains here date mostly to the 1880s, some who advocate for more infrastructure investment say they shouldn't be.

"People should realize just how old and how much we rely today on investments that were made not by our parents' generation, not by our grandparents, but by our great-great-grandparents," said Tom Wright of the Regional Plan Association.

Just this week, the Center for an Urban Future released a report on the subject.

"The average age of New York City gas mains is 56 years old, and more than half of them are made of cast iron and unprotected steel, which are materials that are more leak-prone," said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future.

Bowles said that the city has almost $47 billion in infrastructure needs over the next five years. The challenge is how to pay for it. Elected officials may now be paying attention, but creating new revenue sources, like bridge tolls, is politically unpalatable. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed to a lack of support from the federal government.

"The broader infrastructure challenge is something we address every single day with the resources we have, but that is a tough battle, given that we are not getting some of the support that we deserve," de Blasio said.

Con Edison said that it maintains an aggressive upkeep program, replacing some 65 miles of gas mains every year, but the pipes in the area of the explosion were not slated for the next three-year replacement program, having shown no signs of deterioration. In fact, surveys on the block just last month showed no leaks despite the pipes' age.

"That alone is not a trigger to replace the pipe," said John McAvoy, the CEO of Con Edison. "Frankly, cast iron is incredibly durable and would not be surprised it can remain in service for several hundred years."

While it will take investigators a while to determine exactly what went wrong here, advocates say we can't afford to wait to make investments.

"There can be a price to pay, and a tragic price, if we don't really take care of the infrastructure," Bowles said.

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