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I-81 forum focuses on ensuring local labor in construction project

Zack Seward
WXXI News (file photo)
The second round of public input on the future of Interstate 81 in Syracuse begins Wednesday.

I-81 project director Mark Frechette said at $1.9 billion, the redesign of I-81 will be one of the largest projects New York's Department of Transportation has undertaken.

"It touches over 50 bridges - some are removed, some are replaced, some are rehabilitated, they expand the interstate; there's over seven miles of reconstruction work on Interstate 81, Interstate 690, and Interstate 481; plus highway expansion and rehabilitation work," Frechette said. "The workforce necessary is significant."

Elected officials and community members want to make sure that the skilled positions that are needed for a project like this - everything from masons to truck drivers to engineers - are filled by Syracuse-area residents. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said it's more than just about lifting up the local economy, it's about rectifying the wrongs that the original construction of I-81 created.

"Many of the decisions around infrastructure in the past were very intentional in the way that they marginalized communities and we need to be equally as intentional in our decisions to empower those communities," Walsh said.

But these efforts face certain hurdles, like limitations on geographic preferences in hiring for projects that are supported by federal dollars. One potential solution is a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), called Build Local, Hire Local. It would reserve at least half of the construction jobs in federal infrastructure projects for local residents or people facing barriers to employment and award more of these construction contracts to minority, women, or veteran owned businesses.

"As we reckon with our history of racism, as we begin to rebuild, we have to look at ways to make our communities stronger by reshaping the systems and the structures at the room of the problem," Gillibrand said. "As we push to make those changes, we have to make sure that people who live in the community are actually the ones who benefit."

Deka Dancil with the Urban Jobs Task Force, a local group that advocates for equal employment opportunities especially for minorities, said another potential fix is community workforce agreement, a type of bargaining agreement between unions and the government to require that contractors hire a certain number of people from underrepresented communities in the area. Still, other obstacles remain like making sure local residents who are hired for the project have adequate transportation and child care. 

Officials involved in the forum say these conversations will continue as the project moves forward.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.