Gas explosion is a wake-up call

An explosion in East Harlem was caused by An explosion in East Harlem was caused by a gas leak on March 12, 2014, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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New York is always an act of faith -- where people's homes are stacked to the sky, where the earth beneath us is a maze of subway tunnels, electric lines and gas and water mains, and where the space in between is often filled with cars and trains on overhead viaducts.

On most days this ancient and convoluted system works better than anyone might expect.

And on some days it fails tragically and profoundly.

Yesterday brought one of those awful moments -- when a gas leak triggered an explosion in East Harlem near Park Avenue and 116th Street.

The disaster took at least three lives, injured more than two dozen people and caused widespread evacuations. It's a reminder that the city is swaddled in infrastructure that urgently needs an update.

When it fails, the impact is often regional. The reverberations from yesterday's explosion rippled from Harlem to midtown Manhattan, to Poughkeepsie, to Croton-Harmon, and to New Haven. The blast sent debris onto the nearby elevated Metro-North tracks and temporarily stopped service between the Bronx and Grand Central Terminal.

Authorities are working to discover what caused the gas line to leak and ignite. Age may have had something to do with this disaster or it may be human error.

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Still, the incident is a reminder that far too many of New York's gas, steam, sewer and water lines are outdated -- made of outmoded materials and vulnerable to leaks and breaks. A study released this week by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based policy institute, says New York's 6,362 miles of gas mains have an average age of 56 years. Largely because of that, the study adds, more than 2 percent of the gas Con Edison sends to customers every year never makes it to its final destination.

The system needs an update that will help keep the city and region safer, efficient and economically fit.

We do not want to see the terrible scene that unfolded yesterday in East Harlem repeated.

If we're smart, we'll take it as a wake-up call.

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