Part two of a conversation on the future of I-81 on the Campbell Conversations

Apr 6, 2019

The decision about the future of Interstate 81 in downtown Syracuse still looms over the region. Called the most important decsion for the city in a generation, the public is largely split on what should replace the elevated portion of highway that runs through the city. Many in the city favor a community grid, which would route trhough traffic around the city via Interstate 481, while many outside the city prefer to see the highway stay where it is. 

This week, Grant Reeher has the second of a two-part discussion exploring the different views on the future of I-81, and talks with two advocates against contstructing a street-level grid, also known as the community grid, State Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) and Town of DeWitt Supervisor Ed Michalenko. 

Note: Part one of the conversation, with two advocates in favor of the community grid, aired in March and can be found here.

Interview highlights

Reeher: I’ll start, Supervisor Michalenko, with you, and we’ll get into the many reasons why you and the assemblyman think that it’s important and necessary not to connect the highway through the city and replace it with just a community grid. But I want to ask a prior question drawing on your expertise as an engineer, among other things. … I’m going to simplify this. I’m going to frame it in terms of elevated highway versus community grid. I know it can get more complicated than that, but a lot of the debate centers on those two options. So, let’s just, for now, think about these two. Just in terms of both the finished product and in terms of the construction process that would be necessary to create those two options, which one would be more disruptive to the status quo – rebuilding the elevated highway or tearing it all down and putting a community grid in its place?

Michalenko: Let me start off just by reiterating that replacing the elevated highway with the current configuration isn’t on anybody’s radar. I haven’t heard any advocate of a hybrid solution that says replace it as is. We’re looking for a hybrid, again, which gives the goals and the solutions for the grid but still allows and maintains the connection of north-south traffic through the city of Syracuse. And so, if it’s an elevated highway, construction, in terms of interference or disruptions, really comes down to the design and the schedule of the project. … Whether a highway is constructed, whether a grid is constructed, there’s going to be disruption in any construction project, but in terms of the moving of traffic and the maintenance of the necessary travel routes for most individuals, if, again, it’s staged properly, it will have a minimal impact.

Reeher: Assemblyman, is that the same way you see that?

Magnarelli: I think you can see that in what’s already happening. We’ve already started reconstructing our interstate highway in Syracuse. The Teall Street [Avenue] bridge was completely taken down, on and off ramps completely redone. It took over a year, about a year and a half, to do. Was there disruption? Yeah. That’s where I live. And there was a little disruption but nothing that anybody really complained about. The only complaint I got was when they were pounding in the, I don’t know, girders to hold up the bridge and were making noise in the middle of the night. But that was the only time I received a complaint about what was going on. And the people are absolutely happy with the final result of that construction, so we’ve seen it already. I agree with the supervisor; I think it’s all a matter of staging and planning and how you’re going to reroute traffic as we go on, but … whatever project it comes down to, I would hope we all work to mitigate whatever projects are there.

Reeher: I want to get a sense from the two of you about why you think it’s so important to maintain the highway in whatever form through the city and not disconnect it and then, again, not replace it with just simply this street-level community grid. So, I want to break that out into a couple different ways to think about this. The first one, I guess, is the more negative one. And Assemblyman Magnarelli, I’ll start with you on this. But what problems do you see for the city itself and then also for the surrounding region if this were to be replaced simply with a street-level community grid and the traffic were to be rerouted around 481? What’s that going to do for the city that’s problematic?

Magnarelli: I have this from living in the city or this area for 69 years, or 70 years now. And the problem is that neighborhoods within the city are going to have real problems. For example, the north side of Syracuse, the valley down on the south side of Syracuse, the way people get around in Syracuse, the people of Syracuse themselves – I’m not talking about suburbanites – they use Route 81. For example, if you’re in the valley right now and you wanted to see a movie at Destiny [USA], it takes you about five to 10 minutes. If this goes down, it’ll take you – I don’t care what anybody tells me about traffic or engineering or anything else – it’s going to take you a half an hour or more. Now, people may say that doesn’t matter, that it’s a little bit more time, it’s worth it, but this is everyone. Everyone is going to be affected, not just the people who live next to the viaduct, but everybody in the city of Syracuse is going to be affected by this. Whereas when you go out, there’s going to be even more of an effect, to the suburbs and into the region. It’s important that Route 81 continue to be a north-south interstate for this region. And I don’t know what else to say about that, but I feel that that’s going to be a real problem if we cut it.

Reeher: Do you perceive that that problem that you just identified would become magnified if there was a significant weather event or some kind of other external shock to the system?

Magnarelli: Yes. And what I’m talking about is neighborhoods, OK? Again, I grew up on the north side of Syracuse. It is basically where we have refugees and immigrants, and it always has been. … We have schools. We have churches. We have people who are walking the streets all the time. You’re going to drop 80,000 cars a day onto the grid. And people don’t understand what we mean by the grid. The grid is every single street in the city of Syracuse. … This is the only thing I agree with with people who want the community grid. I agree with one thing: People will find their way. They will find a way to get to their destination the quickest way possible. Well, you start driving hundreds, not thousands, but hundreds of cars down these neighborhood streets, and you are changing the lives of people within the city of Syracuse. That’s my concern.

Reeher: Supervisor, how do you see this playing out?

Michalenko: I am the president of the Onondaga Environmental Institute, and for decades now, we’ve done a lot of work in the Onondaga Lake watershed and Onondaga Creek. … And so, we’re familiar with issues that the assemblyman is talking about. And we are advocates for residents in these neighborhoods. So, yeah, I want to agree with what he said about neighborhoods in the city. It’s not uncommon. I’ve been asking for five to seven years now when I go into a neighborhood, “What do you think of the grid option?” And I’ll have a resident on the south side tell me, “I want to get on at Calvin Street [Drive], and I want to get to the airport. I don’t want to have to go around 690 or 481.” So, I did a few calculations as an environmentalist. … With only an eight-minute increase in time, you’re adding four hours to an individual’s commute if they made that trip twice a day, back and forth to work, five days a week. Over the course of that year, you’re expending an additional 200 gallons of gasoline. You’re costing that individual an excess of $500 at a rate of $2.50 a gallon. From an atmosphere-carbon-dioxide-release standpoint, you’re generating, per individual car, 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. If only 10,000 people have the additional eight-minute commute, you’re generating 40 million pounds of carbon dioxide excess a year. … As the assemblyman noted, we could be talking numbers as high as 50,000, maybe 60,000 individuals that are faced with these additional commute times. And that impact will be spread along the grid and in the suburbs.

Reeher: I have heard from some of the grid advocates, though, … that, among other benefits, this will create more public transportation usage. And so, that will cut back on that. You’re not seeing this?

Michalenko: Again, I would advocate that. One of the things that we’ve said from the get-go – and I’ve been involved in this conversation for seven years now – is let’s look at this from a regional perspective. We ask for a regional transportation study [to] be performed that meant transit be part of the conversation. There’s so many interstate issues that have been left out of the conversation. What do the folks at Fort Drum feel about this? … People don’t stay in the same place for an eight-hour window. Many of our workers are constantly mobile. What are the added costs to commerce in terms of moving goods? … All of these folks are impacted in this conversation, and it needed to be looked at at a regional scale.

Magnarelli: I want to chime in on that. I’m hearing from even small manufacturers in the area who have to get a piece of what they’re building to another manufacturer who adds a piece to it. And they’re constantly crisscrossing Onondaga County. The interstate system is there for them to work as well. We’re just losing all of that by bringing everything to the city streets, and that’s the reason why we feel the interstate must remain.

Reeher: One of the concerns about the elevated highway as it currently exists is the history regarding it in terms of what it has done or is asserted to have done to neighborhoods in the city and particularly the neighborhood sitting right under there that was largely an African-American community that, the argument goes, was really hurt significantly in a lot of different ways by the building of I-81. How would that splitting of that neighborhood be addressed, could it be addressed, by some sort of rebuild of a different kind of viaduct? Or does that require there to be nothing going over at that point? How do you see that working out?

Magnarelli: Well, first of all, to talk about the history of the neighborhood is very valid. And although I was just a teenager at the time, back in the ’60s when they were building this, I assume that people had good intentions in what they were doing, and I don’t believe that the 81 project, people looked at it as something that was going to end up doing the things that it did. I also believe that the poverty that is in that area, right in the shadow of the viaduct, is created not only by the viaduct. There’s a lot of factors that go into that, not just the viaduct. And I think that anything that we do moving forward would have to take into account what we’re going to do with housing and transportation, etc. I was an advocate for the connected corridor, and if you look at the streets and what we did with that in terms of walkability, bicycling, bus lanes, all of those things were built into the connective corridor. So, I’m an advocate for doing that kind of stuff, and I know we’ve come a long way since then, as well, as far as smart streets are concerned. I don’t see any of these projects leaving that out. It doesn’t matter if it’s a viaduct, a tunnel or the grid. We need to do those things for that area, and I believe the engineers can. I don’t care if it’s a big bridge or it’s a tunnel or it’s the connective corridor. Any way we do it, we’re going to have to take into consideration those things going forward. … There’s going to be different modes of transportation. There’s no question about that. We have to take that into consideration, but that doesn’t mean you take 81 away.

Reeher: Supervisor, what are your views on this?

Michalenko: I couldn’t agree more. The whole concept of smart growth and smart growth principles are something that we’re all about and we’d love to see designed for sustainable practices. And all three of the options will allow for that. And so, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been advocating for the hybrid approach. A hybrid approach allows the goals and objectives of the community grid to be incorporated into whatever solution maintains the connection.

Reeher: My take on this is that the tunnel really is not going to be one of the viable options because of the cost. Do you see that that way or not?

Magnarelli: I have to admit that, if the community is not behind it 100%, then you’re probably right, OK? On the other hand, I don’t know why we’re not since it would take into consideration all of the issues that everyone has been bringing up, whether you live in the shadow in the viaduct or if you live on the north side, the valley or in the suburbs or in the region. This is a regional issue. It is not just a downtown Syracuse issue, and I think that those who are trying to make it such are missing the bigger picture.

Reeher: It’s, first of all, an observation that I think it’s fair to say that the views on this issue have become quite strong. And if the decision in the end is not to have the wholesale replacement with a community-level grid and a disconnect of 81 through the city … I think that there are some people in the city and some groups in the city that are going to view this as a slap against the city and also against disadvantaged groups within the city. I think that’s a fair prediction. So, what process do you see for addressing that?

Magnarelli: I don’t think that that’s a fair assumption.

Reeher: I’m basing that on what I’m hearing in the debates now.

Magnarelli: Yeah. And I think that the more vocal part of the debate are the pro-grid advocates. I know that. But when you take surveys or you do any kind of a study into where the people in the city of Syracuse are on this matter, the grid never comes out as the majority – never. … Obviously, in the center city and in the university area, it plays a lot better as far as the grid is concerned. But if you’re in the neighborhoods in the city, the vast part of the city of Syracuse – which I represent, by the way – the people, they’re stopping me at Wegman’s and when I’m coming out of church, and they keep saying to me, “Keep the bridges. Keep the bridges.” I don’t believe that there’s going to be that much of a disconnect. And the other thing I’ve always been saying … whatever it is, we need to get together, as a community, behind whichever project it is.

Reeher: That’s precisely my concern in asking this question.

Magnarelli: I’ll be the first one to agree with you that we have to come together. And it doesn’t matter which one it is, as far as I’m concerned. When it’s all done and the environmental impact study is finished and all of the procedures have been gone through and everybody has had their say and their time to put in what they want, we have to come together and then move forward and get this thing done, no matter which project it is.

Reeher: Supervisor Michalenko, I still think it’s going to be the case, though, that for some groups, if that is the decision, it will be seen as, “The suburbs got their way.” I think that’s fair. And since you represent a suburb and one that’s closed-in, how do you see that playing out?

Michalenko: I’m actually closer to this issue in my day job. I’m the president of the Onondaga Environmental Institute. … The grid has been painted as a social and environmental-justice issue, and I think that’s what you’re driving at here. And these social and environmental-justice issues are much deeper than just transportation issues. And I know the mayor and the county executive have gotten together, and they’ve put together some issues, and poverty isn’t limited to the city alone. Central New York in general has to work and we have to work together to improve our local economy. It’s no secret to the cities along upstate New York [that] have suffered for the last 50 years in the economy. … We need to truly address poverty. And so, the only thing I can tell you is that those issues are much deeper-rooted than a highway. … This problem of destruction of neighborhoods and the highway and the movement of transportations and the shift of automobiles, all these things need to be worked on.

Reeher: I want you to take the other side. I want you to think about this from the perspective of a supporter of the community grid and say what is the most important positive thing that would come out of doing that, that would come out of disconnecting I-81 and replacing it with a street-level community grid. What would be the best thing for the city that would come out of that? Make the strongest argument that you can for that.

Magnarelli: I think it’s cheaper. And it would take less time. Those two things, I can’t argue with. I think it would be cheaper and it would take less time, but overall, I think it would be detrimental to the city.

Reeher: Supervisor Michalenko, how would you answer that?

Michalenko: I would add to what I agree with the assemblyman. There would be notable returns in tax revenue to the city through the development of the corridor. But I want to flip it back on that because the history of what’s happening in terms of the development of the city is it’s going to take a while for those returns to come. The housing renaissance in the city actually has forgone about $53 million in tax revenue to the city in the next 12 years through the process of what’s called a 45-A tax exemption. So, many of the developers behind the grid are capitalizing on the housing renaissance. That housing renaissance, in many cases, is gentrifying the neighborhoods, but on top of that, there’s not a large return to the city in the tax revenue for years out. And right now, it’s scheduled about 12 years before you start to see any tax return. … On top of the fact that it’s cheaper and that it would be implemented faster, the long return to the city is the development and the tax revenues from that corridor.

Reeher: Assemblyman, you were making some gestures while he was saying that. Do you want to add to that?

Magnarelli: Only that I believe that a lot of the proponents of developing in the area that more land would be developable, I would just like to say I don’t believe any more land is going to be developable that is now state land. The arterial would still have to be there, whether they call it a boulevard or whatever. But that swath of land is still going to be covered with pavement. Now, it may be all at street level, but you’re still going to have that, so I don’t believe that the state is going to let go of acres and acres of land. That’s just false. The other part of it is that that land that’s going to be developed is the land that’s owned by these developers. … It’s development downtown. It’s something that I’ve been doing all my life. I understand it. I don’t blame them for it. I think it’s a good idea if they can do it, and I think they can do it, no matter which project is taken. … What are talking about or were talking about before was poverty and a neighborhood that is going to be disrupted. Those things are going to happen no matter which project we pick because the housing in that area is ready to be redone again, OK? Its useful life is over. … There is going to be new development of housing there, but when you start talking about mixed-use, different forms of residential housing so that there isn’t a confluence of abject in one place, … those are all very good things. Other people may call it gentrification as well. So, I think we have to be careful in what we’re doing here, and it’s more than just the shadow of 81 that we’re talking about. And a lot more talk has to be had on poverty, housing, mass transit. Those are all things that have to be dealt with but not necessarily connected only with 81.