One day last fall a work crew in Syracuse accidentally struck a water main, sending water gushing into the air like a geyser. A worker operating an excavator scrambled to fill the hole, and then the workers quickly resumed their work.

The occurrence is not unusual in Syracuse. Any time city workers dig up the streets or sidewalks to repair underground water lines, they run the risk of making the problem worse. Many of the pipes that carry the city’s drinking water have not been maintained or updated since they were installed decades ago, and some have shifted their position and become unstable, leaving workers to operate blindly while trying to patch the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

The problem isn’t unique to Syracuse, either. A report by the state comptroller’s office estimated that the state would have to invest $535 million annually to maintain the water systems across the state. In 2012, however, New York spent only about $88 million on such infrastructure.

Syracuse has become the poster child for upstate New York’s the severe infrastructure needs. According to state figures, the city experienced a 42 percent increase in the number of breaks involving its drinking water infrastructure in the first five months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013. Last year alone, Syracuse recorded 372 water main ruptures, an average of more than one a day.

“These numbers are growing and growing and growing. We’ve started to have water main breaks in the spring and summer and (are) pulling up pipes from, you know, the 1800s,” Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner told City & State. “We’ve started to see our infrastructure – our water mains – really suffer under the fact that for the past 20 years, the federal government and the state government have cut back funding to allow us to keep our infrastructure in a state of repair.”

"We’ve started to have water main breaks in the spring and summer and (are) pulling up pipes from, you know, the 1800s.”
- Stephanie Miner, Syracuse mayor

Water flows freely after a repair crew accidentally struck a water main on South Avenue in Syracuse. (Heather Ainsworth)

Since taking office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to spur economic development in upstate cities, and his administration has helped bring large high-tech plants to Albany and Utica, where two nanoscale plants have been built, and Rochester, where a new photonics center will open.

Syracuse officials argued that they had been overlooked, but the region scored a win in December when it garnered one of the three $500 million awards as part of Cuomo’s $1.5 billion Upstate Revitalization competition – also known as the “Upstate Hunger Games.” Though the award is sure to help Syracuse, the funding is slated for economic development projects like the Inner Harbor project, and not for infrastructure.

The Inner Harbor project envisions a mixed-use space for residential, retail, educational, hotel and community facilities, although it has become bogged down by a spat over tax exemptions pitting Miner against Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney.

Even if the Inner Harbor and other projects do move forward and spur job growth, officials worry about constructing new buildings and developments on top of old infrastructure. But a major challenge in trying to identify funds to make needed repairs is the city’s shrunken tax base. Syracuse, like many other cities, experienced a decrease in population decades ago amid a nationwide exodus from cities to the suburbs. Syracuse was built for a population of about 250,000 people, Miner said. Currently, there are about 148,000 residents.

“What are you going to do about that?” asked Mahoney. “We can’t just keep going the way we were going and try to fill the budget gaps that exist because of that decrease. It’s not working. You have to do something different. When you saw in the 1960s the flight to the suburbs, anybody involved in city government in those days should have foreseen the erosion of the tax base.”

Mahoney said the city needs to find a better way to fund government besides through property taxes. For example, one of her first acts as county executive was to rearrange the way Onondaga County allocates sales tax revenue to cut funding to towns and villages while reducing city and county property taxes.

Mahoney also warned that those who live in the suburbs and travel into the city for work should be careful not to ignore the infrastructure issues in the urban core.

“If you think it’s not your problem, you’re sorely mistaken, because the jobs are going to leave,” she said. “If you want to fix the water mains in Syracuse, then you should be encouraging economic development.”

“If you think it’s not your problem, you’re sorely mistaken, because the jobs are going to leave.”
- Joanie Mahoney, Onondaga county executive

The Onondaga Creekwalk under the Evans Street Bridge in Syracuse. The bridge, with numerous sizable cracks, needs major infrastructural updates. (Heather Ainsworth)

Miner agreed, saying that more investment is critical to helping the city rebound economically. “People believe that government should take care of their infrastructure,” Miner said. “That’s the history of how we built up our economy and became the Empire State, whether it’s the subway system in New York, the Erie Canal or the bridges on the road to Canada. That’s what has built economies.”

Miner, however, has put more emphasis on the need for more funding from the state and federal governments. The mayor has estimated the cost of replacing Syracuse’s 550 miles of water pipes at about $726 million. Cuomo has said upstate cities need to focus on economic development so that the urban centers can fix themselves, telling the Post-Standard that he has no plans to provide new funding to Syracuse or other upstate cities for water infrastructure. Instead, he told Syracuse officials to propose economic development plans, like the Inner Harbor project “on steroids.”

The mayor suggested that different strategies – in addition to extra funding – would help.

“I think we have a real opportunity to have a ‘dig once’ philosophy, where we as a society say we should dig once, modernize our water mains, sewer lines, use technology to modernize it and then cover it all up and put a brand new road on it,” Miner said. “We’ll be getting a five-for-one hit on that.”

In recent years, Syracuse has experienced an influx of young adults who appreciate the perks of living in urban centers, reversing the flight from cities in the 1960s. As a result, Syracuse’s downtown area has had an economic rebound, spurring new housing.

“We’re doing these great developments in, for example, the Inner Harbor or downtown, where you have these burgeoning developments, business and great projects,” Miner said. “Yet, we’re putting them on a foundation of infrastructure that is rotting out.”

On a road near a newly revitalized area in the city, above the new Onondaga Creekwalk, is the Evans Street Bridge. The timber-decked bridge, which has cracks in its pavement and wood so large that the water flowing underneath is clearly visible, is one of the five off-system bridges in the city that are rated as deficient by the state Department of Transportation. Despite the rating, the bridge sees active traffic each day.

As Miner sees it, one of the problems with securing funding for infrastructure is that people don’t think about it until something goes wrong.

“When you wake up in the morning – and it’s happened to me – and you go to brush your teeth or take a shower and nothing comes out of the sink, you think, ‘How can I function?’ ” Miner said. “Because of the age, because this is such an important foundation of economic development, because it’s such an important part of New York’s history – and Syracuse’s history – I think the time is ripe and people understand that infrastructure is a fundamental mission of government.”

Click here to read part five of our saga: Binghamton.