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I-81 debate is personal for those who live in highway's shadow

Ryan Delaney
WRVO News File Photo

A decision on one of Syracuse's largest development projects of the century is still years away, but already opinions are becoming entrenched as others plea for more talking and new ideas.

A 1.4 mile elevated stretch of Interstate 81 running right through downtown Syracuse, known as the viaduct, will soon need to be replaced and state and federal transportation officials are in the midst of a lengthy decision process to decide how the next incarnation of the roadway will look and work. A decision is penciled in for 2017.

After a series of public meetings and studies in the spring, two options were deemed most feasible: rebuild the elevated highway as an updated - and wider - viaduct, or tear it down, reroute the interstate to the existing I-481 bypass, and put an "urban boulevard" in its place.

Since then, opposition to the boulevard has grown as local business owners claimed it will hurt their bottom lines. Several politicians and local leaders have called on transportation officials to think bigger than just the two options.

The state Department of Transportation has repeatedly said no decision has been made and no option has been eliminated.

Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson has long been a champion of seeing I-81 torn down, but he admits his side may be losing the public relations battle at the moment.

"When people begin to hear the pros and cons of each proposal in a realistic way, I think we're going to see a change in attitudes," he said.

For those who live with the highway out their front door and the constant rumble of traffic in their living rooms, the decision on Interstate 81 is more personal.

On Wednesday afternoon, the state D.O.T. kicked off a series of public meetings at Toomey Abbott Towers on the city's south side, the elevated highway clearly visible out the window.

The meeting was well attended by residents of the affordable housing complex and the nearby Pioneer Homes. But there was little discussion about a tunnel versus boulevard, but instead about how the decision will affect where they live.

"We live here, for God's sake," said Patti Monday as she launched into an impassioned speech. "I care about getting kicked out of my home in five, six, seven years."

Others expressed concern over their homes being torn down by construction of a new roadway, a situation transportation officials said not anywhere near reality yet.

Also on resident's minds was access to decent public transportation in the new plan. Others discussed air quality and noise living so close to such heavy traffic.

A handful more neighborhood meetings around Syracuse and its suburbs will be held in the next few weeks. Then the state D.O.T. will host a larger scoping meeting on Nov. 13.

While D.O.T. officials have stressed the importance of public comments and input, they admit the decision on I-81's future will ultimately come down to them and the Federal Highway Administration.