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Fine line between rustic and rusty

LONG LAKE - Once touted as an environmental innovation, the brown, oxidized guardrails along many of the state's highways are now seen by engineers as a headache.

The guardrails are made of an alloy that's supposed to rust on the surface, supposedly saving painting and maintenance costs while looking weathered and blending pleasantly with the scenery.

But state engineers are finding that the alloy - used for infrastructure all over the U.S. - is failing prematurely due to oxidizing too much, and the guardrails are in need of replacement all across the state.

"It is certainly an unfortunate situation," state DOT Hamilton County Regional Engineer Mike Romanych said May 14. He noted that the steel's surface oxidation was supposed to form a barrier to prevent structural decay, but experience has proven otherwise.

"We are finding that the brown oxidized coating doesn't protect against rust."

In March, the state sought $121 million in federal stimulus money to replace the scenic guardrails after numerous failures throughout the state. In Hamilton County alone, the price tag is $1.9 million, Romanych said.

"We are seeing an accelerated deterioration of the brown rails after 12 years or less," he said. "Some were replaced as little as four or five years ago, but we are now replacing them all with galvanized rails."

The typical lifespan of a galvanized guardrail is 40 to 50 years.

The brown rails are made of a steel called Core-Ten and designed to rust on the surface to create a rustic appearance.

But the rails apparently have been continually rusting from the inside out - and function must supercede form, he said.

"The deterioration rate depends on environmental conditions - some are exposed to more moisture or road salt than others," Romanych said.

The guardrail replacements are taking place on such thoroughfares as Rte. 28N between Long Lake and Minerva, as well as Rte. 28 west of Blue Mountain Lake.

A debate has already began in Westchester County, as officials from the Palisades Parkway Commission want rails installed that keep with the rustic appearance.

"We are going with the galvanized rails," Romanych said. "The galvanized box-beam rails will last significantly longer."

State officials expect all of the faulty brown rails to be replaced within the next decade.

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