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Familiar sides reappear at public meeting to replace I-81 in Syracuse

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
A public meeting on I-81 at the Syracuse Common Council.

Central New York residents took familiar sides in the ongoing debate over what should replace the aging Interstate-81 viaduct in Syracuse. 

The Syracuse Common Council held a fact-finding public meeting last night to hear from different sides of the issue. The state Department of Transportation will select a preferred option between a community grid, tunnel or new viaduct when a draft environmental impact statement is completed by early next year.

Some members of Carpenters Local 277 came to the meeting in favor of saving I-81. Jeff Murray, the lead representative, said beyond the traffic issues of the community grid option, replacing 81 with a new viaduct would be a major four to five-year construction project and a boom for jobs and the economy.  

“We’ve already taken over a dozen inner-city young men and women into our apprenticeship program, and the work hasn’t even started yet," Murray said. "We’re going to be taking lots more in, and giving them careers, good paying careers with these jobs. You build that highway, we will take hundreds of people.”

But some city residents, like Laura McCord, favor the street-level community grid.

“In so many cities across the world and country, people are choosing a grid, choosing to remove a highway, and they’re seeing tremendous benefits, in a predictable pattern," McCord said. "You want to increase property values? You want prosperity for all? You want thriving communities and connectivity? Community grid.”

Joe Bright with the furniture store Dunk & Bright on the city’s South Side spoke on behalf of saving I-81 because of the benefits of high speed access. He said they polled their customers, and 16 percent said they would not continue to shop at the store if the community grid option was implemented.

“This would be a disaster for Dunk & Bright, but I use it as an example of what would happen more generally to any south side business," Bright said. “We can be confident that a certain percentage of residents of Syracuse will no longer come to visit south side businesses. That’s an unfortunate reality for a neighborhood that has struggled to maintain businesses.”

But Diana Ryan with the Moving Peoples Transportation Coalition, took issue with Bright and the Save-81 group's use of data she said is from 20 years ago, that said a street level option would cause more pollution because of stop-and-go traffic.

"Cars have changed a lot since then," Ryan said. "They cannot be using that study. At best, it's irresponsibile. At worst, it's intended to mislead."

The Syracuse Common Council could vote on passing another resolution on I-81, like they did in 2015, when they urged state officials to replace the viaduct with a street-level boulevard. 

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.