© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

City vs. suburban divide apparent from future of I-81 surveys

Ryan Delaney
WRVO News File Photo

Two recent surveys have solidified a suburban-city divide over the future of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, with people living outside the city want to see the elevated roadway stay. 

A Siena College/Syracuse Media Group poll released over the weekend found that people living outside of Syracuse’s borders want to see the highway’s path through downtown preserved, compared to an urban boulevard replacing the aged roadway.

Those feelings align with the results a survey State Sen. John DeFransisco (R-Syracuse) did of his district. A large majority of respondents there say a high-speed north-south roadway needs to be maintained through the city.

"To dump all the traffic through downtown Syracuse, to me, doesn’t make sense," he said Wednesday.

The results of the Republican lawmaker’s survey mirror the demographics of his district – in which only a sliver of constituents live within Syracuse.

In both surveys, a newly constructed elevated highway wins out as the preferred option. Also in both, only a small portion of people supported a tunneled interstate under the city, the most expensive option.

DeFrancisco says if people think the viaduct is an eyesore, the new roadway could be built to be more visually pleasing.

"If the viaduct is important to get rid of because it’s ugly and people don’t like it, you could build a new viaduct that’s much more attractive," he said. "Every city I’ve been to, there’s some travel over the city on a viaduct."

There are several cities nationwide that have actually undertaken large infrastructure projects to remove interstates. 

"Often times, these discussions about removing the highway is understand to be, it’s removing access. In fact that’s not the point," contends urban planning expert Peter Park. "The point is to increase access to downtown as well as throughout the region."

Peter Park worked as an urban planner in Milwaukee and Denver before going into academia. In the first city, he oversaw the removal of a major urban interstate. He said in an interview with WRVO that a highway, with its limited on and off ramps, can actually make traffic worse.

"Probably, there are some folks who can’t get off on the street they want to go to, so they have to overshoot their destination and come back," he said. "Which again, if you think about it, is only inducing more travel on your streets." 

Park was the latest speaker in the city and Onondaga County's I-81 lecture series.

He’s now teaching in Boston, a city that buried a downtown freeway in a project known as The Big Dig. He calls urban highways a “failed experiment.”

"Because cities, from the very beginning, have existed because of access and exchange: economic exchange, social exchange, social exchange, right?" he said. "The things that make urban places and civilizations."

Park says Syracuse is engrossed in a much more thorough and educated debate than he’s seen elsewhere. DeFrancisco, meanwhile, is urging people to speak up now and not complain when it’s a “done deal.” 

"It seems to me like everything’s moving toward that concept, whether you’re in the city or the suburbs," DeFrancisco said. "You better figure out that traffic’s going to be like. You better figure out whether it’s truly going to unite the two areas of the city."

State and federal transportation planners are slowly moving toward a decision on I-81’s future.