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City, suburb divide continues at I-81 neighborhood meetings

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
An informational meeting on the future of I-81, held at the Dr. King Elementary School on Syracuse's south side.

The future designs of Interstate-81 through downtown Syracuse are being presented to residents in central New York by the New York State Department of Transportation at neighborhood meetings. But some elected officials say the information is lacking and better dialogue is needed.

Syracuse resident Kathy Downing said she is really excited that the state DOT selected a street-level community grid to replace a mile of the elevated viaduct through downtown. She said the elevated highway has been a big barrier, physically and mentally.

“It caused a lot of poor quality of life for a lot of people," Downing said. "The people who live next to it, ironically, are the ones who benefit least from it. This is just the first step in taking back our city and putting highways where they belong, outside of the city.”

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Cicero Town Supervisor Mark Venesky, center, with a group of mayors, town supervisors and Onondaga County legislators.

Syracuse resident Dale Tussing, who along with his wife Ann, protested the original building of the elevated highway, more than 50 years ago, said I-81 cut the city in half.

“We see the community grid as an opportunity to mend the city and undo the harm,” Tussing said.  

But a coalition of mayors, town supervisors and Onondaga County legislators continue to express their displeasure with the community grid and the process that has led to this point. They want high-speed interstate access to continue directly through Syracuse, whether that be in the form of an elevated viaduct, tunnel or depressed highway. Cicero Town Supervisor Mark Venesky said at a neighborhood meeting in Camillus, DOT officials failed to answer his questions on what the tax and economic impacts would be for Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse, the town of Salina and Destiny USA, if I-81 is rerouted to I-481, east of the city.

"This project has not been vetted," Venesky said. "They have no idea where the numbers are coming from. This is not a done deal. The environmental impact study has not been approved by the federal government. We need to make sure that these questions are answered satisfactorily, before any decision is made.”

The group is calling for a more open dialogue with DOT at these meetings, so they can have presentations, express opinions and get answers. After the meetings conclude next week, a public hearing will be held later this year.

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.