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Biden official says Syracuse's I-81 could be a model for other federal projects


A high-level Biden administration official in Syracuse Monday said central New York can be a template for using federal infrastructure funds approved by Congress earlier this year.

Monday marked White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu’s first visit to Syracuse. And he said he was impressed after a report from community stakeholders about the I-81 project.

"I love the project and I love the community," said Landrieu. "I mean the leadership seems to be pulling everyone together. A lot of coordination, collaboration, communication, critically important to projects like this."

White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu speaks during a visit to Syracuse Monday
Ellen Abbott
White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu speaks during a visit to Syracuse Monday

Work has already started on the community grid project, which will ultimately involve tearing down a 1.4-mile elevated viaduct that for decades brought Interstate 81 through the city of Syracuse, at the same time splitting the city of Syracuse in half, destroying neighborhoods of color in the process.

The project not only includes the construction but also workforce development, especially in those communities impacted by the superhighway. Landrieu said that’s an important part of the project.

"We need to use this money to reconnect communities and lift people up," he said. "Make sure folks have good paying jobs and that there’s really a good sense of economic growth and development as a result of it."

Landrieu also suggested that designers need to do more than just build a new road, but include aesthetic aspects that make the project attractive. Joe Driscoll, the Interstate 81 city project director, said those are discussions happening right now in the city.

"That was encouraging to hear that we don’t have to just focus on moving cars from point A to point B," said Driscoll. "That we should be focused on design, making things beautiful, making things walkable, making things livable. Because I do think design leads to function and what we design this corridor to be is how it will be used."

The federal government will be distributing $1 trillion dollars in infrastructure funds across the country in the coming years, and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said it was important for Landrieu to find out about the Syracuse project close-up.

"His job is to go out in the country and make sure that the federal infrastructure funds are being invested in the right places and in the right way, and I believe Mayor Landrieu sees Syracuse as a model, and that’s something we’re proud of, but we also need to stay on his radar for additional investment opportunities," said Walsh.

The project is estimated to cost $2.25 billion and be completed in 2028.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.