With changes pending, I-81 continues to deteriorate

Underneath the Interstate 81 viaduct on East Washington Street, the scene reflects the stark reality of the interstate: Green paint coated guardrails, struts of the interstate are falling off and guardrail joints are crumbling. A pipe is covered with rust and a light bulb attached to wire dangles upside down on a strut.

This “structurally deficient” section of highway running through Syracuse has been slapped with band-aids over the last decade, as a long-term solution has been debated and delayed.

The 855-mile interstate highway that connects Wellesley Island in northern New York to Dandridge, Tennessee, is in dire need of receiving a comprehensive treatment following years of snowy winters and heavy traffic. What that treatment will be is still unknown, as the New York State Department of Transportation is currently considering several options for renovating the highway. A consulting firm is conducting a review of all possible options and is expected to complete it this summer.

“Structurally deficient” is a condition indicating that a deficiency is present in a bridge and needs attention, according to The National Bridge Inventory Index. State officials have labeled approximately 66 bridges in the county as structurally deficient labels that the area is aware of, but hasn’t been able to reach a substantial plan of action to fix. The damaged infrastructure poses no immediate threat to public safety.

Additionally, 23 percent of bridges, or 107 bridges, in Onondaga County are classified as “functionally obsolete,” which describes a state of a bridge that is no longer sufficient for its task by design.

A 2013 I-81 Corridor Study found that of 76 bridges located along I-81 and I-690, 9 percent were deemed structurally deficient and 60 percent were considered functionally obsolete. Eighteen of those bridges are in the viaduct section of I-81 in downtown Syracuse.


Functionally obsolete bridges may be safe and structurally fine, but the condition indicates a bridge doesn’t have enough lanes to handle heavy traffic flow, according to The National Bridge Inventory Index. Structurally deficient bridges, meanwhile, pose no danger to the public, such as a bridge collapse, said Michael Tuttman, a civil engineer at a transportation engineering consulting firm called Robson Forensic.

The U.S. saw a major infrastructure accident in 2007 when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing seven people. Tuttman said I-81’s bridge structure is different from the one in the Minneapolis. I-81 in Syracuse is structured so that there are several steel beams underneath the concrete roadway, supporting it. Even in the case one of these beams fail, the whole roadway will not fall, he said.

“Our bridges are safe. Period,” said Tiffany Portzer, NYSDOT spokeswoman, in an email. Portzer said a bridge inspector evaluates and documents the conditions of at least 25 elements of the bridge in an inspection. All publicly owned highway bridges are subjected to a general inspection at least once every 24 months, while some bridges are inspected every 12 months based upon their condition, she said.

“If a bridge is open – it’s safe,” Portzer said.

The product of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a massive infrastructure project, interstate highways once embodied engineering power that fueled a transportation revolution, facilitated automobile-dependent culture and created suburbs in the late 1940s and 1950s in the United States. The decision to construct the elevated interstate expressway along Almond Street in Syracuse was made in 1958.

Tuttman said bridges on I-81 were constructed with a limited lifespan of around 50 years to keep cost reasonable. Portzer said the 50-year lifespan was a standard engineering practice for bridge engineers.

Even though a final decision on the future of the interstate is expected to be made some time this year, the state’s actual timeline for the project may not go according to plan, as the consulting firm hired to study replacement options postponed a release of its findings for six months.

Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer

Joanie Mahoney, Onondaga County Executive, told reporters after her State of the County address on Tuesday that the infrastructure Onondaga County has control of is “in good condition.” As for I-81 and Interstate 690, which are owned by the state, Mahoney said it does not make sense that the county cannot go into the city of Syracuse to inspect the highway’s bridges, due to constraints with the existing system.

Mahoney has voiced support for consolidating Syracuse city and Onondaga County governments to create a countywide highway maintenance system.

Andy Alden, executive director of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition, said stakeholders in the coalition, including state DOT officials, are feeling overworked as they are pressured to do more work with less money. Highway maintenance situations varies state from state, Alden said, depending on how states use funds provided by the federal government.

The state has allocated $5 billion for the DOT’s capital program for fiscal year 2018, meant to improve the state’s highways, roads and bridges.  The city received $3.5 million in state highway aid during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The interstate highway areas flagged as either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient were inspected as recent as 2015, according to New York State Highway Bridge Data published in February.

The weather conditions in Syracuse are among the factors contributing to the wearing down of the roadway, Alden said. In snow-heavy regions such as Syracuse, metal blades used to plow the snow scrape the surface of the pavement. Additionally, using salt on bridges results in corrosion of steels used in concrete.

“As long as we depend on salt for de-icing and as long as Americans demand to have their roads open very quickly after a snowstorm, we are going to have these kinds of issues with the salt decaying the infrastructure,” Alden said.

Alden noted that heavy traffic is another factor: There is almost twice as much traffic on the highway than was originally anticipated by engineers when I-81 was built. About 40 percent of traffic that pass through I-81, he added, are heavy trucks that put much more pressure on the highway than cars.

To replace the highway’s elevated portion in Syracuse, the state last year originally narrowed the project down to two options —the viaduct option and community grid option — only to reverse its direction in January, when the state announced that a consulting firm would be reviewing all possible options, including different tunnel options that the state had previously eliminated.

“It’s time for these structures to be replaced,” Tuttman said.

Photos by Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer
Map by Emma Comtois | Digital Designer