I-81 transformation into a boulevard

Syracuse, New York

The construction of Interstate 81 in Syracuse came with the forced displacement of nearly 1,300 residents from the city's 15th Ward. It devastated a historic black community, severing the social fabric of the community and razing swaths of buildings, and with them, affordable housing options. Neighborhood deterioration, a glut of surface parking lots, and citywide population loss followed.

As written in a March 2016 article in The Atlantic, "The completion of the highway, I-81, which ran through the urban center, had the same effect it has had in almost all cities that put interstates through their hearts. It decimated a close-knit African American community. And when the displaced residents from the 15th Ward moved to other city neighborhoods, the white residents fled."

Today, the average annual daily traffic on I-81 ranges from about 43,000 to 90,000 vehicles per day as it runs just east of downtown and connects with I-690. As with many structures from the 1960s, many portions, including the 1.4-mile elevated section in downtown Syracuse known as "the Viaduct," are near the end of their design life.

Syracuse I-81 construction
I-81 under construction through Syracuse, circa 1967. Source: Innovation Trail

For years, Syracuse Common Councilor Van Robinson has been vocal about the benefits of removing the elevated interstate. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Minor is also in favor of teardown. Leading figures from Syracuse University and Upstate Medical University, who see I-81 as an eyesore and impediment to the growth of their respective institutions, have expressed support for removal.

The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) co-led a multi-year study to review potential alternatives and analyze traffic with input from the public, called the I-81 Challenge. Additionally, the Onondaga Citizens League conducted a study titled "Rethinking I-81," which focuses on the social, economic, and cultural effects of possible alternatives. Despite pushback from opponents, several other Syracuse organizations have joined the teardown coalition to lobby state officials to consider replacing I-81 with something that returns value to the city of Syracuse. Supporters have suggested nearby I-481 could act as the main carrier for through-traffic, while elevated I-81 would be replaced with an urban boulevard that would reconnect downtown neighborhoods, be less costly to maintain, and increase economic activity along the corridor.

Syracuse I-81 boulevard
I-81 proposed boulevard Source: James H Kunstler

In 2013, the state DOT hired Parsons Transportation Group to study alternatives and address the long-term future of the I-81 corridor. The process is moving into environmental review and the preliminary design stage; the viaduct portion of the total 12-mile study area will be made a priority. Currently six alternatives are being considered. NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald has publicly stated her personal opinion that "it would be great for the community to bring it down."

In January of 2015, The Syracuse Common Council unanimously approvedresolution urging state officials to tear down the elevated section of Interstate 81 and replace it with a street-level boulevard through downtown. Previous proposals for changing this interstate had included building a tunnel under the city, turning the road into a boulevard that runs through the city, and rebuilding the highway in a sunken corridor. A major part of the most recent I-81 rebuild plan calls for erecting the "missing link" between I-690 and I-81 on the city's northwestern corner. The state Department of Transportation's draft plans call for building two new ramps that skirt the lower portion of Syracuse's Little Italy. The state DOT will continue to evaluate options for I-81 before releasing an environment impact statement in late 2016, but the case for the teardown is overwhelming. Replacing I-81 with a walkable street grid would be like lifting a boot off the neck of downtown Syracuse, and it would draw investment to an area that currently suffers from high vacancy rates and leave the region in better long-term fiscal condition. It’s also the kind of bold policy stroke that would command national attention, with Cuomo potentially starring as the governor who triggered the removal of a whole cohort of aging highways that blighted central cities for 60 years.

Syracuse I-81
I-81 today. Source: Innovation Trail

Check out The I-81 Challenge website for updates and ways to contribute to this project.

Top photos: Syracuse, 1956 and 2011. Source: The Institute for Quality Communities - University of Oklahoma

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