A gas leak that forced the evacuation of 500 people from a building Monday may be the first indication of the challenges posed by downtown Kansas City’s streetcar project.
Streetcar construction and utility officials confirmed the gas leak occurred when a contractor for Kansas City Power & Light inadvertently hit an 8-inch gas main Monday morning at Ninth and Main streets. It was part of the utility work needed to make room for the actual laying of streetcar rail this summer. Meghan Jansen, spokeswoman for the Kansas City streetcar construction project, explained that numerous private utilities, ranging from KCP&L to Time Warner Cable to AT&T, are getting their lines out of the way. She said those relocations will ensure the utility workers can reach their lines for repairs after the streetcar system begins operating.
Monday’s incident, which resulted in no damage or injuries, was both a test of the city’s new protocol for dealing with gas leaks and an example of the complexities posed by the streetcar project.
“Any time you’re working underground, there’s always a degree of uncertainty,” Jansen said. “Sometimes you think you have everything marked, but it’s underground and maybe old. There’s all kinds of things that come into play.”
Anyone who digs into Kansas City’s downtown streets is likely to encounter a confounding tangle of mains, lines and cable, said Jennifer Kincaid, spokeswoman for Kansas City Water Services, which will replace ancient water mains all along the streetcar route this year.
“When we dig up streets, it’s like utility soup down there,” she said. “It’s like a big rainbow of lines all over the place.”
Fire Battalion Chief James Garrett said the Fire Department got a call about Monday’s gas leak around 9:30 a.m. and went to the scene with HazMat and a rescue unit. Ever since the gas explosion last year at JJ’s restaurant, the Fire Department has had a new protocol that sends a fire truck with equipment to monitor gas levels in the air, along with a battalion chief to decide whether an evacuation is necessary.
Garrett said fire crews checked the levels in buildings within several blocks of the gas leak and found no gas. But a strong odor of natural gas seeped into the basement and stairwells at 811 Main, one of Commerce Bank’s buildings. Garrett said gas levels there were not dangerous, but out of an abundance of caution firefighters began clearing the building of about 500 employees about 9:50 a.m.
The gas company was on the scene, and emergency workers closed nearby streets. Missouri Gas Energy got the gas shut off by 11:30 a.m. At noon, after fire crews determined no gas was present, Commerce Bank employees were allowed back into the building. MGE completed repairs at 1:45 p.m. with no outages during the repairs.
Garrett said it was a textbook example of how these types of incidents should be handled.
“We’ve learned a lot through the whole JJ’s experience,” he said.
The evacuation went smoothly, just as employees have been trained to do, said Commerce Bancshares Senior Vice President Robert Rauscher. But he said it was also an inconvenience.
“We lost two hours of operational time,” he said. KCP&L spokeswoman Rebecca Galati confirmed that a contract crew working for the utility came into contact with the gas line. She emphasized that KCP&L was not responsible for marking the gas main, and she had no further comment about the incident. Jenny Gobble, spokeswoman for Missouri Gas Energy, said it marked the gas mains based on its maps. She did not comment on whether those maps were wrong but said the incident was under review.
“Whenever our gas mains are damaged, we conduct an investigation to understand what occurred,” she said. Kansas City Public Works spokesman Sean Demory said the city has a full-time contract inspector monitoring the utility work underway for the streetcar project. This was the first major disruption the city has encountered since the utility work started last November.
But that doesn’t mean downtown businesses aren’t apprehensive about the streetcar project. Sue Burke, a frequent streetcar critic who owns Kansas City Air Filter at Fourth Street and Grand Boulevard in the River Market, said she worried about how the construction in front of her building would affect customers and deliveries. So far, she said, the communication from the streetcar constructors has been adequate.
“They’re telling me that they’re going to cooperate. They sound like they really are sincere,” she said. “They know they have to keep these businesses open.”
But it’s still very early in the process, and Burke said she fears Monday’s gas leak is a “harbinger of things to come,” because any time there’s digging in streets with such old utilities, anything can happen.
Jansen said a big part of her job was communicating with businesses along the route, including Commerce Bank and others, and helping them mitigate the impact on their garages, entryways and retail storefronts.
“This is a very new, different type of project for Kansas City, and we appreciate that we’re working right out in front of businesses and garages, and it’s impactful,” she said. Jansen said the private utility work should be completed by midsummer. The city also plans to replace nearly all the water mains –– many of which are 120 to 140 years old –– and many aging sewer lines along the route. A start date for that work hasn’t yet been determined. The water and sewer work will likely take until late this fall. The actual laying of track probably won’t start until early this summer and is expected to take until summer 2015. Then there will be four to six months of testing the system before it opens to the public.
Jansen emphasized the rail construction work wouldn’t result in the entire route being torn up for more than a year.
Instead, she said the rail work will mostly be done in three-block phases, with each phase taking about seven weeks. During that construction, at least one lane will remain open each way on Main Street.
More information and an interactive map and construction schedule are available at KCStreetcar.org. A hot line is available at 816-804-8882.