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Syracuse I-81 viaduct can come down after court tosses lawsuit

Ava Pukatch

A court ruling that put a pause on some of the plans to rework Interstate 81 through the City of Syracuse, has been overturned. The appeals court decision clears the way for the teardown of the Interstate 81 viaduct through Syracuse.

The ruling is the latest in the tug of war over 81; an interstate built in the 60’s, meant only to last 50 years.

The state decided two years ago on a community grid option as the best way to deal with a crumbling viaduct that split the City of Syracuse in half for decades, destroying a Black neighborhood in the process. It siphons off high-speed traffic around the City of Syracuse onto Interstate 481, creating a boulevard or business loop through the city.

While most local leaders embraced a plan they believed would right the racist wrongs of the past, Renew 81 for All, made up of leaders of some surrounding suburbs and other stakeholders, continued to try to stop the project. Renew 81 lost its latest legal challenge, after the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division for the Fourth Department called a lawsuit contending there hasn’t been enough environmental review, “without merit."

Gov. Kathy Hochul said the court decision means the viaduct is coming down.

“After a court ruling from the Appellate Division, we can now definitively say that the I-81 Viaduct – which has literally divided the City of Syracuse for decades – is coming down," Hochul said. "This favorable resolution of the State Department of Transportation's appeal allows the entire project to move ahead as scheduled, including the eventual demolition of the Viaduct. There's more work to do to reunite and reconnect communities in Syracuse and today's decision is a landmark step in the right direction.”

Renew 81 member Charles Garland said not so fast.

"We lost this battle, alright," Garland said. "The war is still going on, so we're going to confer with the other members of Renew 81, our lawyers, and we will see."

Renew 81 has 30 days to bring the case to another Appeals court. In the meantime, parts of the $2.25 billion project away from the viaduct have been able to continue.

Mayor Ben Walsh said the Renew 81 lawsuit, cost taxpayers a lot of money and caused needless delay.

“The Fourth Department determined what was plainly clear from the beginning of the Renew 81 For All petition: NYSDOT completed the required ‘hard look’ in its environmental review of the Interstate 81 project," Walsh said. "Not unlike the wasted year re-studying a tunnel option, this lawsuit cost taxpayers a lot of money and caused needless delays. For better health, stronger neighborhoods, and improved transportation, it’s time to move full speed ahead with all aspects of the Community Grid plan.”

Garland defends the legal moves.

"There's no such thing as spending too much money on the right thing," Garland said. "This grid is not going to solve systemic racism. It's not going to solve redlining. It's not going to solve the over-policing we've had for years."

Renew 81 has also filed a lawsuit in federal court. The federal government is paying the lion’s share of the project, and is involved in the approval process. Central New York has been debating what to do about the aging viaduct for 14 years.

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.