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How I-81 divided Syracuse and why opinions are divided on how to replace it

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News (file photo)
I-81 through downtown Syracuse.

Over the past several years, many central New York residents have debated passionately about what they think should happen to the Interstate-81 project through downtown Syracuse. 

The current viaduct is nearing the end of its useful life and the public is weighing three possibilities: replace it with a new viaduct, a street-level grid or a tunnel. I-81 divided a community and opinions now on how to replace it are divided along those same lines.

At a speech in Syracuse in August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo described the I-81 project as transformative, with the potential to jump start the region.

“I-81 did a lot of damage," Cuomo said. "It was a classic planning blunder. Let’s build a road and bisect an entire community. That’s an idea. Let’s do that. Part of this is acknowledging the mistake and going back and repairing it.”

The New York State Department of Transportation will choose the final option, which needs to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Depending on where you live in central New York may determine which option you prefer. Some Syracuse city residents, such as Andrew Schuster, favor the street-level community grid.

“For all of the businesses downtown that rely on talent and educated people and mobile professionals, it really is important that we have this community grid so that we can actually continue to develop the city, continue to reconnect downtown to the university, continue to have a resurgent downtown Syracuse," Schuster said.

Some residents in the suburbs of Onondaga County, like Paul Torrisi from Skaneateles, want to keep I-81 the way it is, worried that traffic will spill into the suburbs if it is gone.

“The option where they’re going at ground level is probably going to worsen it for us because the trucks are not going to want to stay on that, they’re not going to want to take the 481 bypass because it adds a few minutes to their commute,” Torrisi said. "So, I'm guessing it would divert even more truck traffic this way."

And some say the answer is to bring back the tunnel, an option eliminated by the state DOT in October. Supporters say it would be a compromise between the other two options.

Elected officials representing the city or the suburbs, tend to mirror the views of their constituents. The Syracuse Common Council supports the community grid. Councilor Helen Hudson remembers the 15th Ward, a black neighborhood with restaurants, dance clubs and bowling alleys, that the downtown viaduct divided when it was built half a century ago.

Credit Onondaga Historical Association
Onondaga Historical Association
A map of the 15th Ward in Syracuse from before the construction of I-81 and I-690.

“And now, it’s just remnants," Hudson said. "81, along with the projects, created a separation amongst this community.”

Salina Town Supervisor Mark Nicotra, along with other elected officials and businesses in the surrounding towns, want to save 81.

“This has been here for 50-plus years," Nicotra said. "Industry has built up around it because of the highway. If you take that away, what happens to that?”

It is not difficult to see why residents living in certain areas would support one option over the other. For city residents, Interstates 81 and 690 were supposed to relieve traffic congestion and rejuvenate downtown. Instead, downtown business and employment suffered and traffic problems continued due to what some historians say were engineering blunders.  

Onondaga Historical Association Executive Director Gregg Tripoli said it was a sign of progress to have the Erie Canal, the railroads and I-81 run directly through downtown Syracuse. But, he said there were problems with each of those major transportation routes.

“We didn’t really pay attention to history," Tripoli said. "If we had looked back we would have said everybody was complaining that the Erie Canal bisected our city. Hard to get across, traffic jams, all kinds of money to repair, it was an eye sore, it was smelly. It’s very similar to the complaints about 81.”

But as Syracuse’s population declined, the suburbs boomed after the interstates were built. In 20 years, from 1950 to 1970, the towns of Salina and DeWitt about doubled in size. The town of Camillus grew by 20,000 people, almost a 400 percent increase. Tripoli said highways have not worked for the economic benefit of the city whereas the canal and trains did.

“You had to go where the route was," Tripoli said. "People got on the train, they got on the canal. It was not like they could go off on their own canal or go off on their own train like they can go off in their own vehicle. So what happened was the vehicle made people, individuals, more mobile and they were into moving out into the suburban areas.”

According to a Syracuse University dissertation on the interstates, written by Jerome Allan Cohn in 1978, Syracuse and New York State came up with their own options on how to build highways in the city. They were similar to ideas proposed today. There was a belt line road around the city, depressed roads, and ground-level, high capacity streets with traffic lights.

But when the federal government offered to pick up the tab through President Dwight Eisenhower's Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, interstate expressways required specific design standards. Plans for ground level roads were out and the elevated option was deemed the most cost effective and least disruptive.

Syracuse University professor David Bennett said it also did not help that people thought a depressed highway reminded them too much of the Erie Canal.

"It's easy for people later on or for academics on the sidelines at the time to criticize it like I did, but it wasn't an easy decision, it would have been more expensive and it would have displaced more people," Bennett said.

As then-Syracuse Mayor Donald Mead reluctantly put it, “You just don’t easily turn down a road that is costing you nothing.”

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.