SYRACUSE — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday stood before the Interstate 81 viaduct through downtown Syracuse and pledged his intention to rejuvenate the highway in a way that repairs the harm it has inflicted over the years.
Accompanied by New York’s two senators, Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Buttigieg met for about 25 minutes with Syracuse leaders about the I-81 project.
He urged local officials to continue pushing for jobs, economic development and racial equity as part of the project to reimagine the downtown highway.
“Jobs, safety, prosperity (and) racial justice cannot be separated from transportation,” Buttigieg said during a news conference at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. “That’s part of why we’re here. Every decision about transportation is necessarily a decision about justice.”
President Biden’s $1.7 trillion infrastructure bill, part of the American Jobs Plan, would provide unprecedented levels of funding for transportation projects, Buttigieg said. The money is intended not just to repair roads but to do so in a way that creates jobs and restores communities, he said.
“It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to create the future of transportation, learning from our past, and doing better,” he said.
Among other things, Buttigieg said he wants to make sure that road and bridge projects bring jobs to the people who live near them.
He got a loud cheer from the crowd who gathered at the news conference, including members of the Urban Jobs Task Force, when he promised that I-81 jobs would go to Syracuse residents.
“We’re making sure that the people who actually live in the communities where these projects are located get the opportunity to work on them,”he said.
Buttigieg offered no new details on the timeline or cost of the I-81 project, which is still under environmental review. A draft environmental impact statement is due next month.
Nor did he offer a template for how to organize the project in a way that coordinates the need for urban jobs, housing, new development and other community benefits. Most previous transportation projects are examples to avoid, he said.
Schumer said the I-81 project is his top transportation priority. Although a final design has not been approved by federal planners, he said there is no doubt that the elevated 1.4-mile section through Syracuse should be razed to make way for a street-level grid.
“The decision to tear down the highway and build the community grid is the right decision,” Schumer said. “We might have to tweak it, make some changes here and there, but it’s the right decision.”
Schumer and Gillibrand said they are pushing legislation as part of the American Jobs Plan that would provide funding specifically for construction, planning and community engagement in communities that have been harmed by highways through their neighborhoods.
Syracuse a perfect example of a community that would benefit, Gillibrand said. I-81 inspired some of the legislation, she said.
“This is a project whose time has finally come,” Gillibrand said.