Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Syracuse Post-Standard

Join the brainstorming about Interstate 81, the highway that divides Syracuse literally and figuratively


Posted: May 4, 2011
Originally Published: May 4, 2011

Syracuse, NY -- Interstate 81 is the road people love to hate in Syracuse.

It’s been blamed for stunting the city’s economic growth, for its racial and social divides and for making the city ugly and unwalkable. Several of the region’s leaders — the mayor, the chancellor of Syracuse University and the president of Upstate Medical University — want it removed.

That would be the easy part. What to put in its place? That’s the real question.

And the state needs an answer soon. Starting in 2017, it has to do something about the 1.4 miles of I-81 that run through the city. Two of the 10 bridges that support the road are structurally deficient. That doesn’t mean they’ll give way, but it’s time to fix them, said Bill Egloff, planning project manager for the state Department of Transportation.

The other eight are considered “functionally obsolete,” according to the report. That means the construction doesn’t meet today’s standards. The cost of fixing the problems was $315 million in 2006. Plans for projects this big take an average of nine years for approval. Egloff hopes to push this one faster.

He wants the public’s help in finding an answer on the front end. There are workshops all this week on the road’s future. People can drop in, ask questions and offer suggestions. No idea is too big or small, Egloff said. The first was Tuesday. More will be 4 to 8 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday in the Oncenter. More workshops will be scheduled in about six months.

More than 100 people showed up for Tuesday’s workshop.

Among them was Scott Macfarlane, who works at Upstate in the shadow of I-81. He wants to see I-81 come down, and the university hill more connected with the rest of the city. The solution is thinking past the road, he said. “If the highway came down, what is the bigger vision?” Macfarlane said.

More than 50 years ago, the state leveled houses and businesses to make room for the raised road that brings cars through the city. The state promised it wouldn’t cut off the city, but it did.

The construction went hand-in-hand with urban renewal. The 15th Ward, home to many black families, was leveled, with residents relocated to public housing projects. All without public input.

That’s one of the reasons the DOT is holding these workshops. Egloff, his staff and members of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council will be listening. They will have blank sheets of paper for people to draw their ideas. And if people can’t make it, the DOT and SMTC will come to them this summer.

The state doesn’t want people to feel like history is repeating itself. “We don’t want them to have a feeling they didn’t matter: ‘Oh, here’s the state doing it to us again,’” Egloff said.

The state and SMTC put together a committee of people from more than 30 community groups, including Jubilee Homes, the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network and Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The public input began back in 2009, with meetings with 20 focus groups (more than 150 people). The state distributed a questionnaire to I-81 drivers. The answers show what it’s like to live in the shadow of a concrete highway that carries as many as 80,000 cars a day:

“We can’t open our windows because of all the dust.”

“Syracuse has two seasons: winter and construction.”

“It is big, ugly and rusty.”

The DOT analysis found people use I-81 mostly to go into and out of the city, not through it.

Two alternatives would still send traffic through the heart of Syracuse — either at street level or below it. At the time, people thought 30 to 40 percent of the cars on I-81 weren’t stopping in the city, and that traffic that could be diverted around the city on Interstate 481.

But most of the drivers, 38,600 of 44,000 cars, were going somewhere in Syracuse or the near suburbs.

This was a surprise, said James D’Agostino, director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council. The finding means that any solution for the elevated highway will likely have to carry a lot of traffic through the heart of the city. Or planners will have to come up with a more creative way to divert cars.

That traffic study shows the amount of planning involved. The state used automatic license-plate-reading cameras on the major highways for a 24-hour period in April last year. Cameras captured license plates at entrances and exits to track drivers’ paths.

The study also found that 45,000 cars a day get on or off the exits at Adams and Harrison streets.

Egloff of the DOT is familiar with all of I-81’s problems. But he can’t discount a good
thing: It transformed Syracuse into a “20-minute city.” You can get anywhere in the region in about 20 minutes.

He grew up in Lakeland, and attended the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry when I-81 was being built. His rush-hour trip home, from the hill to Lakeland, would take him along Erie Boulevard. It would take him an hour to get through the gridlock. It would be suicide to walk across Salina or Warren streets without waiting for the light, because traffic was so heavy.

Now that trip takes a little more than 10 minutes.

Like a house that’s built around a tree, Syracuse grew up around 81. It has shaped how people here live, drive and walk, said Dennis Connors, curator of history at Onondaga Historical Association.

He was at a conference recently at the Sheraton Hotel on University Hill. He overheard a conversation at the front desk. A woman from New York City wanted to know how to walk to the Everson Museum. The desk clerk stared at her, puzzled.

The clerk didn’t think to tell her to walk because that mile is split in half by I-81. She’d have to go under the maze of concrete and navigate the traffic that shoots into the city. Connors said she decided to walk it: “Hopefully, she made it.”