A major transportation project that was scheduled to begin last year continues to be delayed.
In April 2022, members of the state Legislature approved their annual budget with $1.1 billion allocated to reconstruct Interstate 81 through Syracuse. The plan was to break ground later in the year for a project estimated to cost $2.2 billion and take six years to complete.
However, a lawsuit filed the state’s proposal for the project postponed the beginning of the project again. Federal, municipal and state authorities have been discussing ideas to reconstruct I-81 for about 16 years, and finally putting this plan into effect will need to wait a bit longer.
A group called Renew 81 for All sued the state over its plans in September. Representatives said planners failed to sufficiently test the environmental effect the project would have on the surrounding community.
State Supreme Court Justice Gerard J. Neri recently ruled that the state could proceed with construction on Interstate 481, work that is part of the project. But the state, he further declared, must conduct three additional environmental tests before beginning work on the elevated section of I-81 through Syracuse.
A major point of contention with I-81 is a viaduct passing over Almond Street that was constructed as part of the highway in downtown Syracuse. For years, critics have emphasized that the viaduct became a barrier between predominantly black and predominantly white neighborhoods in the city.
“Government officials of the 1950s and 1960s built a highway on a milelong bridge through downtown Syracuse. While it may have allowed drivers to skip over the city for faster-growing suburbs, it cast aside more than 1,000 people who lived and worked in its path,” according to a Post-Standard story published April 17, 2022, by the Watertown Daily Times. “The massive overpass became a symbol of division between black and white residents, people who could buy a home and those who could not, people who had jobs and those who were unemployed. More than a symbol, it is a physical barrier between the hill of the highest-paying employers and a neighborhood defined by public housing with one of the highest poverty rates in the United States. No one wants to walk under the overpass even as urban planners have added more colorful sidewalks and better lights.”
Planners studied various proposals for reconstructing I-81. In 2017, the state Department of Transportation declared its design preference.
The idea is to create a tree-lined community grid, or boulevard, that would handle the traffic moving through Syracuse. This would remove the disputed barrier between neighborhoods and redirect a lot of traffic around downtown.
“The community grid project entails tearing down the viaduct that passes over Almond Street and replacing it with a business loop. The community grid itself will disperse traffic traveling north-south and east-west to existing roads and redistribute high-speed traffic to portions of Interstates 481 and 690 set to be reconstructed, according to the DOT,” an article published Nov. 17 by The Daily Orange reported. “The viaduct’s original construction in the late 1950s and early 1960s began after the city of Syracuse petitioned for and received funding from the Federal Highway Administration. Construction resulted in the tearing down of and displacement of residents from the 15th Ward, an economically successful neighborhood with a largely black population. As a result of racist housing laws, displaced residents were forced into air pollution-afflicted housing near the viaduct and subjected to health issues and structural segregation.”
Opponents of the community grid idea believe it will hurt businesses by redirecting traffic around downtown rather than through it. One group proposed a hybrid approach, a roadway comprised of a tunnel and a ground-level highway. The tunnel would allow the construction of a community grid of streets above ground, reuniting the bifurcated downtown.
The tunnel would replace the elaborate steel viaducts snaking their way from the I-690 intersection south. The rest of I-81 would be reconstructed at ground level.
On this page, we have previously endorsed the hybrid plan as the best option. However, the state is determined to proceed with the community grid idea.
Many interests have voiced their views for more than a decade on how to redesign and reconstruct I-81.
Businesses in Syracuse and the surrounding areas need to be assured that moving high-speed traffic through local communities won’t adversely affect their operations. They serve as an economic pillar for the city, and hurting them will damage this region.
But at the same time, Syracuse residents deserve to have officials deliver on their promise that the city’s neighborhoods will be reunited. They were harmed significantly by how I-81 was built. They want the city, state and federal governments to make good on their pledges to remedy this situation, and the concerns they have expressed are understandable.
This puts designers in the undesirable position of attempting to draft plans that will in some way address everyone’s needs. In doing so, they must take all the views offered on this project seriously.
Focusing solely on the issue of racial justice may inflict unintended consequences on many businesses whose jobs and taxes are critical to this area. But serving only commercial interests will once again shortchange the residents whose lives were altered for the worse by the highway. This will be a delicate balancing act, and we hope that organizers are up to the challenge.
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