Unfortunately, it often takes a horrible disaster like the gas explosion in California earlier this month before eyes are opened about the aging infrastructure in our nation.

Three years ago it was the collapse of the I-35W bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring 145, that fueled concerns on how many bridges were in such bad shape throughout the nation. Suddenly, states and local muncipalities began doing their own monitoring of traffic and vehicles to determine if their aged spans could handle the load.

The deadly gas explosion near San Francisco has sparked the same kinds of concern, but this time, the danger runs under our feet. Nothing is scarier than an explosion that shatters the darkness, stealing lives like a thief in the night.

A new survey by the Associated Press found that there are thousands of miles of decaying pipes running underneath communities in this nation. In Pennsylvania, some are 120 years old. About one-quarter of the gas pipelines, which are made of cast iron and bare steel, are located in Philadelphia alone.

This is the recipe for another disaster.

In many cases, replacing the old lines gets bogged down in bureaucratic wrangling between the utilities, regulators and the legislators. It's up to the regulators to oversee the gas companies to assure that the older systems are maintained.

When it comes to replacing old systems, gas companies are not eager to front the money to replace the systems since it takes so long to go through the regulators in the reimbursement process. To expedite, the utility companies are sure to appeal to state legislators to allow them to increase charges more quickly on their customers. Any fee increases will still require the approval of regulators.

In Pennsylvania's case, let's hope that in the round-robin game of inspections, repairs and replacing of our aging pipeline system, residents are not caught in the middle like those unsuspecting souls in California who watched in horror as their neighborhood exploded around them in the middle of the night.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]