In the latest example of Baltimore's aging infrastructure's causing damage to city streets, a large sinkhole opened on East Monument Street near Johns Hopkins Hospital on Wednesday afternoon — causing a stretch of the road to be closed and nearby businesses to be evacuated.
The hole, estimated to be about 2 feet wide, 6 feet long and 20 feet deep, closed East Monument about 1 p.m. between North Patterson Park Avenue and North Montford Avenue, while a strong smell of gas forced businesses to close and brought Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. repair crews to the scene.
The closure was later expanded east to North Milton Avenue as repair crews and equipment continued to respond.
Kurt Kocher, a city public works spokesman, said the hole was likely caused by damage to a 120-inch brick storm-drainage culvert that runs under the street and carries much of the area's rainwater to the Inner Harbor.
"With heavy rains like we just had, you'll have rocks and bottles and trash getting in there," Kocher said. Debris getting into the 1930 culvert turns it into "a washing machine or rock tumbler," damaging its brick structure, Kocher said.
In 2009, similar damage to the same culvert buckled East Monument about a block away, between North Patterson Park and North Collington avenues, Kocher said. City crews made "major repairs" to the culvert to fix the problem, he said.
Emergency responders first on the scene Wednesday evacuated nearby businesses because of the strong smell of gas, officials said.
"Police just came in and they were, like, 'Kick everyone out,' " said Matthew Lohr, who works at Baltimore Service Center, a check-cashing business directly across the street from the hole. "They said there was a leak, and they shut down the whole block instantly."
Rachael Lighty, a BGE spokeswoman, said crews responded just after 1 p.m. and began surveying gas lines in the area.
As of 4 p.m., no gas leak had been found, she said.
"It hasn't impacted our gas system as of yet, and we haven't had to take any pieces of equipment off line, so there are no customers affected," Lighty said.
Crews would remain on the scene as public works officials determined the next steps, and to ensure no damage to gas lines occurred, she said.
Khalil Zaied, the city's transportation director, said his department is diverting traffic from the area to Orleans Street and East Biddle Street, and would continue to assess traffic options as more information became available.
Alfred Foxx, director of the city's public works department, said officials were not sure Wednesday afternoon how extensive the damage was.
"What we're trying to do is isolate just this block," he said. "Our concern is there may be some voids other places."
Kocher said a 6-inch-wide sewer line also runs through the area, but the location of the sink hole indicates the problem is with the larger culvert.
If the damage is to the 120-inch culvert, the street could remain closed "for quite a while" while crews work to repair it, Kocher said.
"That's a major transmission line of your rainwater draining the streets," Kocher said.
The closure of Monument is the latest in a string of road closures related to water lines and other utilities rupturing or being damaged in the city's underbelly.
On July 16, the rupture of an 20-inch-wide water main under Light Street buckled the road and forced officials to close the street between Baltimore Street and Lombard Street. The replacement of the pipe, which dates to 1898, and a parallel water main dating to 1914, is ongoing.
Hours later, a ruptured 6-inch-wide water main forced officials to close Fleet Street between Bond and Caroline streets in Fells Point for much of July 17.
City officials said there are two to three water main breaks in Baltimore every day. The public works department has said it plans to begin replacing more miles of pipe in the city each year. It now replaces less than five miles of water pipe annually, a small percentage of the thousands of miles of pipes than run beneath the city.
Plans to repair the city's water lines do not include storm-drainage culverts like the one believed to have been damaged Wednesday.