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Syracuse south side residents should have loudest voice on I-81, NYCLU rep says

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
A community forum on I-81 at the Well of Hope Church in Syracuse, Saturday, May 18, 2019. Lanessa Owens-Chaplin speaks on the right.

A collaboration of faith-based organizations held a community forum recently to give residents on Syracuse’s south side more information pertaining to the future of the I-81 viaduct through the city. Presenters said south side residents will be impacted most by the project, and they should have a louder voice in the process.

The New York State Department of Transportation selected a street-level community grid as its preferred option to replace a mile of the elevated highway. Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, project I-81 counsel with the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it’s more than just an infrastructure project, it’s about racial justice. She said 1,300 families were displaced when I-81 was built through a predominantly black neighborhood in Syracuse.

“Now, we’re looking at this as an opportunity to say, DOT you caused this damage back in the 1950s and 60s, so how are you going to try to repair the damage?" Owens-Chaplin said. 

She said there should be environmental remediation for people who have lived alongside the viaduct. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, living within close proximity to a highway, increases exposure to traffic-related air pollution and the risk of adverse health effects. Minority populations are most likely to live in those areas. Owens-Chaplin said that results in higher rates of asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, infant mortality and low child birth weights.  

“What is the soil measuring as far as lead or fuel and diesel?" Owens-Chaplin said. "What are the homes measuring as far as air particulates? Trying to remediate those things in the process of recreating a community grid.”

The DOT is expected to hold a public hearing in the fall, followed by a 45-day comment period. That window of time is so important, because Owens-Chaplin said it’s the only opportunity, legally, the community has to make changes to the design of the project.

“We want the voices of the residents to be the loudest voice, to say what happens in their neighborhood,” Owens-Chaplin said.

The DOT is required to respond to each comment given during that time frame. Owens-Chaplin said if there is a large enough voice from the south side that gets dismissed by the DOT, the state opens itself up to litigation.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.