Authorities knew of 49th Street damage long before roadway collapse

A failed culvert pipe led to the collapse of 49th Street NW during heavy rains in August. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Three years ago, the D.C. Department of Transportation conducted a routine inspection of a culvert carrying a small stream under 49th Street NW and into Battery Kemble Park. Finding damage and evidence of frequent clogs, the agency recommended replacing the pipe, according to agency spokesperson Terry Owens.

The work is now underway — but only after the culvert failed during the rain-soaked weekend of Aug. 18, creating a sinkhole under 49th Street and forcing a 16-week emergency road closure between Dexter and Fulton streets.

Spence Spencer, a former Wesley Heights advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives on 49th Street, said the Transportation Department had been promising repairs for nearly a year before the cave-in. The most recent update came just last month.

49th Street is closed for 16 weeks of repairs between Dexter and Fulton streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

“Basically, DDOT tells us that they are going to work on it, they don’t give us any details and then inform us that the road is ‘passable’ and therefore it’s OK,” Spencer told The Current. “That was a week before the entire thing collapsed and became impassable.”

According to Owens, the Transportation Department began preparing to replace the culvert in October 2015. A project design was completed in March 2016, and the agency secured permits in November. Asked why the project didn’t move forward sooner, Owens said that preparations were in fact taking place behind the scenes.

“The culvert was functioning, if at a reduced capacity, from 2014 when it was identified as deficient up until the storms of August 2017,” Owens wrote in an email. “DDOT prudently planned, designed and obtained permits for its replacement and was in procurement for the work when the August storms washed out the roadway.”

Neighbors said the park-side stretch of 49th Street NW had been suffering damage for years before the collapse. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

The project entails replacing the old 36-inch-wide pipe with a new 48-inch one, whose greater capacity will reduce the risk of clogging. New catch basins, storm drains and manholes will direct water from 49th and Fulton streets into this culvert. Owens told The Current that concrete manholes and catch basins are being specially made for the project, which slows down its pace. He added that some trees will be removed to accommodate construction, and that the project team is coordinating with the National Park Service and the Transportation Department’s Urban Forestry Division. Residents have full access to their homes during the road closure, but the collapsed roadway cuts off part of a popular cut-through route to the Palisades.

Spencer said he isn’t satisfied by the Transportation Department’s explanations for the delay on beginning construction.

“We’ve been trying to warn these guys about the impending collapse, and not only do they concede it was about to collapse, but they didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “This is like a parable of D.C. malfeasance. What does it take for them to listen to their citizens?”

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D, which includes the affected area, is scheduled to discuss the 49th Street issue at its monthly meeting tonight. A Transportation Department representative is expected to attend.