A water main which broke and flooded a major downtown Toronto intersection 140 years after it went into the ground is a reminder that city infrastructure needs constant upkeep, an expert says.

The ageing 12-inch pipe suffered an 18-inch break last Saturday, sending water gushing over the roadway and into St. Andrew Station at King Street and University Avenue.

The break has snarled traffic and streetcar service in the area and is expected to keep the intersection closed for another week before it’s repaired.

According to the city, the 14-decade-old water main gave way just two years before it was set to be replaced in 2025.

Water main break

One city planning expert says that while infrastructure emergencies are bound to arise, the break hits home the fact that upgrading crumbling infrastructure is a never-ending task that a large city needs to keep up with.

“It reminds me of how important consistent preventative maintenance is and keeping that state of good repair,” says Professor Matti Siemiatycki, who is the Director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities. “Maintenance investments is what keeps the city going and we have so much infrastructure that's aging, and it has to be maintained.”

According to the city’s website, the average age of Toronto’s water mains is 61 years old. But nine per cent are 80-100 years old and some 15 per cent are more than 100 years old.

On average since 2016, the city experiences 1,100 water main breaks per year.

“The city has been investing in maintenance and they do have plans in place, but they also have been talking about, you know, under budgetary pressure, what type of cuts would have to be made?” Siemiatycki says. “And I think what people are seeing now is we have aging infrastructure. We have a backlog of things that need to be maintained and when these type of incidents happen, the impacts are very large.”

The municipality typically replaces 30-40 kilometres of water mains each year and extends the life of more than 100 kilometres of water mains each year through rehabilitation.

The city says it prioritizes a number of factors when considering which water mains to replace first, including age and material, break frequency, operational performance, future growth, and coordination with other construction projects.

“We have a comprehensive program of capital upgrades to our water mains and our sewers,” Bill Shea, director of Distribution and Collection at Toronto Water, told CP24 earlier this week. “This particular water main was slotted for replacement in 2025. It's about 140 years old.”

While this pipe “didn't quite make it to 2025,” Shea said, the city nonetheless spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year rehabilitating and upgrading water mains.

At the same time though, the city is facing a number of budgetary challenges. Even after the biggest property tax hike since amalgamation,  the city is still grappling with how to fill a roughly $200 million hole left by the loss of some development charges as a result of an Ontario housing plan which axed some of the fees developers pay the city. A report by city staff released in November warned that the loss of development charges could hinder the city’s ability to invest in infrastructure upgrades. While Premier Doug Ford has said he thinks much of the shortfall can be found by cutting waste at the municipal level, the province has said it will make Toronto “whole” for any shortfall from the housing plan. No specific details have been released about what exactly that means though.

The federal government also failed to show up last year to provide much-needed COVID-19 relief funding for the city.

In an environment where cash becomes scarce, Siemiatycki warns, politicians could be tempted to kick un-sexy costs like sewer replacements down the road rather than cut more high-profile services.

“If the system is starved of money, then cuts obviously have to be made and when those cuts are made, you know, it's either things that seem on their surface to be low frequency events or things that are out of sight, out of mind. And infrastructure tends to fall in that space.”

While road closures for maintenance in the warmer months tends to be frustrating for those trying to get around, Siemiatycki says unplanned emergency closures of roads and transit are even worse.

Investigators with Toronto Water found a roughly 18-inch hole in the ageing cast iron pipe which broke at University Avenue and King Street. The gushing water coming out of it not only created a mess on the surface, but washed away the earth underneath the streetcar tracks, creating a void that compromised their integrity, Shea said. The pressure of the water also heaved up the roadway, which has to be replaced.

water main break

“Especially over the summer, there was so much frustration about the construction that was taking place,” Siemiatycki says. “A lot of that construction was actually to fix and upgrade water mains and to do other types of infrastructure upgrades. As much as people are frustrated by the routine, unscheduled maintenance when it's an emergency is way more disruptive.”

He says people have to understand that maintaining vital infrastructure is an ongoing job and that you can’t just “set it and forget it.”

“You expect that the pipe that has always been there for 50 years is not gonna start leaking tomorrow,” he says. “And yet one day it does break down.”