Battle Lines Drawn Over Syracuse Highway Teardown

Syracuse's I-81 is crumbling. Will the city rebuild it, or tear it down?Photo: Onondaga Citizens League

Syracuse’s I-81 is crumbling. Will it be rebuilt and continue to divide downtown Syracuse, or will it be torn down? Photo: Onondaga Citizens League

To keep the aging relic blighting downtown, or tear it down?

That’s the question looming over many American cities with Eisenhower-era highways these days. And nowhere is that question more immediate than in Syracuse.

Syracuse’s Interstate 81 is one of the best candidates for a highway teardown in the country. The aging elevated freeway is widely considered a blight on the city and is nearing the end of its useful life. The state of New York is considering a plan to tear it down and replace it with an at-grade boulevard.

If Syracuse tears down I-81 — and there are a lot of compelling reasons to do that — it could set an important precedent for other American cities, helping to make intentional highway removal more common.

The removal of I-81 enjoys a great deal of grassroots and political support, but nothing worthwhile ever happens without a fight, and a new group has emerged to oppose the teardown. They call themselves Save 81.

Among Save 81′s public list of members are a number of suburban politicians and business owners who believe the highway is vital to their interests.

The issue has been heating up since last year, when state officials narrowed down the options for I-81 to two: tear it down or rebuild it. In doing so, the state acknowledged that burying the roadway is not financially feasible.

A concept rendering for the boulevard that could replace I-81. Image: Onondaga Citizen League

A concept rendering for the boulevard that could replace I-81. Image: Onondaga Citizens League

And between the two remaining options, the teardown looks like the much more sensible option, even if you only look at the politics of the situation. That’s because if the 1.4-mile section of the road in question were rebuilt according to today’s highway standards, it would have to be widened. And that would probably involve acquiring a lot of properties, probably by seizing them through eminent domain — an process that would likely be expensive, time consuming, and controversial.

Since rebuilding the highway like that looks like a non-starter, Congressman Dan Maffei, who represents the locus of opposition — suburban DeWitt — recently urged the state Department of Transportation to consider other options.

Supporters of the teardown, like Syracuse’s Common Council President Van Robinson, say there’s still plenty of time for the city to discuss its options and for everyone’s views to be heard. Robinson has been one of the strongest voices in favor of the teardown. He calls I-81 the city’s “Berlin Wall,” dividing Syracuse “between the haves and the have nots.”

He said he thinks widening the road that has caused so much disinvestment in the city would be a mistake.

“Rebuilding it and rebuilding it at the prescribed width would have a very severe negative impact on the city,” he told Streetsblog.

He also said he thinks suburban opposition to the teardown, grounded in the fear that it will hurt businesses, is unfounded. There haven’t even been any major traffic studies, he said, so those concerns are based entirely on speculation.

A few years ago the city did have to close down I-81 for a week, and Robinson said he was among those who protested. But after the first day, drivers had found different routes and everything proceeded essentially as normal.

“A teardown would impact 1.5 miles. You’re talking 35, 40 blocks,” he said. “I think it’s more a fear of change than anything else.”

John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, said having a public debate about the issue is a good thing. When he was mayor of Milwaukee, Norquist oversaw the teardown of the Park East Freeway.

“Replacing I-81 with a boulevard is difficult for people to embrace when they first hear about it,” he said. “Ultimately the community would be wise to remove it.”

“If they examine examples from the U.S., Canada and around the world they will start to realize the damage that freeways have done to Syracuse and the benefits of removal,” Norquist added. “Every place they’ve been removed has benefited economically and the traffic disaster that is usually predicted by opponents never happens.”

“Once I-81 is removed and replaced with a boulevard most people will wonder why they didn’t do it long ago.”