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At Katko town hall, I-81 debate shaped by zip code

Payne Horning
Pam Dooling of DeWitt speaks against a community grid option as a replacement for the I-81 viaduct, saying it will increase traffic throughout central New York.

At a forum in East Syracuse this weekend, central New York Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) heard a variety of opinions about why the state should either replace or rebuild the aging I-81 viaduct in Syracuse. 

One of the few points of consensus reached at the town hall was that no city's residents want to bear the brunt of the traffic that I-81 currently ferries through the region.

Residents from Syracuse's suburbs, like DeWitt Town Board Councilor Karen Docter, criticized the idea of tearing down the viaduct to build a community grid in the city's downtown region because of the additional traffic it would send into the surrounding area via 481. 

"Drawbacks I anticipate if we use solely the community grid option are noise pollution - trucks are constantly riding that safety rumble thing that's on the sides of the highway and it sounds like there are bombs going off, we have the air pollution, we have the noxious gases, if the wind is blowing the right way - or the wrong way - we smell the diesel fuel," Docter said. "And what is of concern to me is not what we smell but what we don't see. What about the diesel soot particulate if everything is routed to 481?"

But many of those in favor of the community grid option, like Lillian Abbott-Hook, said the pollution issue is exactly why the viaduct needs to come down.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVo News
WRVo News
Coran Klaver delivers petitions supporting a community grid option to replace the I-81 viaduct to Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus).

"What I hear is a lot of not in my backyard, keep it where the poor people live," Abbott-Hook said. "I hear a lot of fear about noise and things like that and what it is is people are afraid that their property values are going to go down. They moved out of the city to get away from the dirty city, but now some of the city problems might come out. But if you live in a community and are part of a community and you work in the city, you suffer with the city and you should want it to grow."

Those in favor of the community grid say it's cheaper than rebuilding the viaduct or putting in a tunnel and could add new land onto the city tax rolls. Those opposed to the idea say it is impractical and will cause traffic jams.

Others are in favor of a hybrid option that would combine a tunnel option and community grid.

"If in fact I-81 did alienate our population or a part of that population, I say take that viaduct down," Damian Ulatowski said. "But I want to go on to say let's not forget the communities that grew up around what was built in the wake of that construction of 81. Are we going to alienate them? A hybrid option gives the some 70-80,000 vehicles that traverse that highway on a daily basis an opportunity to get where they are going as expeditiously as possible, it gives both of the sides of the issue - if that's what there are - what they're looking for, it respects all of us, and disenfranchises none of us."

Opponents to a tunnel note the greater expense of building and maintaining it compared to the other options.

Katko says he will not likely take a stance in the debate until after the New York State Department of Transportation releases its upcoming study of the three options. He plans to host two other forums on the issue in Salina and Syracuse.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.