Sometimes excavation and construction industry workers will use the phrase “spaghetti bowl” to describe the underground utilities in an area where they are working. This means there are a lot of different utility lines running close together. The lines can be for things like electricity, gas, water, and sewer. They can also be for telecommunications, such as telephone and cable TV lines.

When examining the question “What does a spaghetti bowl mean in underground infrastructure?”, look no further than subterranean New York for a perfect example. This vertical city has expansionary limits, with the only way to build is skyward. While most of us see the vertical construction of NYC stretching up to the stars, many never stop to consider its vertical extension stretches below the street level. The underground infrastructure of many metros means lines are often buried underground, and they can be difficult to see. This is why underground utility workers use the term “spaghetti bowl” to describe these areas. It can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti to figure out which line is which.

What Does “Spaghetti Bowl” Mean in Underground Infrastructure?

There is a vast network of underground utilities buried across the country. Excavators must take great care when digging into the ground for residential or commercial construction projects to avoid hitting buried gas, electric, telecommunications, and water/wastewater pipes and cables. According to the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD), they operate and maintain more than 3,000 miles of water distribution mains and more than 3,000 miles of gas distribution mains. Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) says they operate and maintain more than 1,300 miles of underground, high-voltage transmission lines.

Across the underbelly of NYC, there are more than 10,000 miles of sewer pipes and there are hundreds of miles of steam pipes. Let’s not forget the serviceable, abandoned, unused subway tunnels winding around Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

Add the never-ending lengths of electrical and communications lines, and it’s easy to see why it’s a “spaghetti bowl” of infrastructure that’s challenging to map and navigate.

Sewer Lines

Manhattan received its first sewer beneath Broad Street when the city still had the moniker of Little Amsterdam. The purpose was to pump sewage into the Hudson River, a practice that ended in 1986. The city installed sewer pipes across the boroughs, with cholera outbreaks causing drinking water contamination in the 1840s. Some of the earliest sewers in Manhattan predate the Civil War era, but in the 1850s, the city management started building proper answers to handle its rapid expansion.

The Croton Aqueduct was the first system to change the concept of conduits, with much of the old infrastructure deteriorating. By the 1860s, over 70 miles of sewer pipes were already sunken beneath the city streets. Today, 100 times that figure lurks underground.


After Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, it was only a decade before it noticeably impacted NYC. Between the clothes lines and telephone, wires were strewn across the city, casting the streets of New York City into darkness.

Eventually, New York City passed a law banning the erection of ugly telephone poles. While projects ignored the law, the great blizzard of 1888 changed everything, toppling lines across NYC. After the event, the lines went underground.


Before the arrival of the first European settlers on Manhattan Island in the 1600s, the area had a problem with water supply. The new arrivals resolved this issue by damming the Croton River to form Croton Lake, 40 miles upriver, completing the project in 1842.

Today, 6,600 miles of water pipes deliver water to the thousands of buildings in NYC, with the primary conduits being Water Tunnels Number 1 and 2. The tunnels were part of a huge infrastructure project completed in 1917 and 1936

Sunk hundreds of feet below the streets of New York, Tunnels 1 & 2 measure 24 feet across. Unfortunately, the lack of maintenance on these tunnels presents the most significant threat to NYC infrastructure today.

Steam, Gas, & Electricity

Founded in 1823, the New York Gas Light Company got busy installing gas lines throughout Manhattan, with expansion projects laying pipelines throughout the borough in the coming decades. By the end of the 1800s, Birdsill Holly invented a method of heating his home using steam.

The project’s success allowed him to expand this idea throughout Manhattan in 1877, founding a company to progress his idea. Wallace C. Andrews took the project off his hands, and the New York Steam Company was laying pipes underground across the city by 1882. By the end of the first four years of the NY Steam Company laying lines, they had five miles of mains and hundreds of customers.

NYC – The Perfect Example of Spaghetti Bowl Infrastructure

To understand the huge sprawling network of underground infrastructure in NYC, a visitor must only look at a subway map or walk the streets on a cold winter night to see the steam rising from the thousands of grates strewn across the city.

April is Safe Digging Month

April is National Safe Digging Month. Every digging project, no matter how large or small, warrants a call to Nebraska811 to locate any potential underground utilities before putting a shovel down.

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