A daunting challenge: What to do with Interstate 81? County Leg rejects boulevard idea favored by Van Robinson

Interstate 81 has cast a shadow over Syracuse since 1961.”Urban renewal” was the catchphrase of the day, and a vibrant city neighborhood known as the 15th Ward was the victim.

The 20-foot-high four-lane expressway created an imposing physical barrier between the mostly African-American residential area known as “The Bricks” and Upstate Hospital and the Syracuse University hill.

“It was a city divided,” remembers Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson. “In fact, at that time I called it the ‘Berlin Wall.'”

Now, as I-81’s cement and girders slowly crumble under the weight of half-century of heavy traffic, transportation experts and municipal planners are re-thinking the highway that bisects the city. And they don’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Instead, they’re actively soliciting ideas and advice from the public about how to deal with the 1.4-mile stretch of I-81 that runs through the city.

The I-81 Challenge

They’re calling the decision-making process The I-81 Challenge, a community dialogue overseen by the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC). Since 2009, The I-81 Challenge has hosted more than 40 small-group and focus meetings as well as three large-group meetings, including its most recent May 21 at the Oncenter.

While most of these meetings took place downtown, on May 1 more than 100 citizens and public officials turned out for an I-81 Challenge presentation at the Holiday Inn on Electronics Parkway in the town of Salina. Onondaga County Legislator Kathy Rapp (5th District-R) opened the meeting by recalling some of the bitter feelings created when I-81 suddenly wiped the 15th Ward off the map.

“When I-81 was first built in the 1960s,” Rapp said, “the biggest complaint heard was that there had not been enough public input. This time, Central New Yorkers have plenty of opportunity for input and you can continue to have input.”

Deb Nelson of the state DOT emphasized that the 1-81 process is “not yet at the project phase,” which she estimated to be “at least a couple years” down the road. At a county Legislature Planning Committee meeting in April, SMTC spokeswoman Meghan Vitale told legislators that the DOT wanted a decision by 2017. That could be just in time. Engineers believe that most of the deficient bridges in the primary study area will be seriously deteriorating by 2020.

Timetable TBA

Whatever the timetable turn out to be, the Federal Highway Administration will soon become involved, Nelson said. “So this decision will not be made in a vacuum.” To emphasize that point, SMTC Director James D’Agostino said that in 2012 more than 480 people attended The I-81 Challenge meetings and some 250 participated online at thei81challenge.org.

The planners are considering five primary options: leave it as is, repair it, rebuild it as is, construct a tunnel or depressed highway, or create a boulevard running through the city. Going forward, the state will narrow those options to the ones most feasible and affordable. Then, the project would undergo federal and state environmental reviews before construction.

Discussions at previous I-81 meetings showed “no clear consensus,” Vitale said. Everyone could agree, however, that whichever option is chosen, it will cost a pretty penny. Its final price tag would fall between a low of $500 million to renovate the exiting viaduct to a high or $1.9 billion to build a mile-long tunnel through the city.

Funding such projects is “traditionally” shared by the federal government at 80 percent, state government 15 percent and local government 5 percent, D’Agostino said.

‘Boulevard’ under fire

On May 7, the County Legislature weighed in with its opinion by passing a resolution opposing the boulevard option. The legislators who introduced the resolution – including Rapp, a Republican, and Linda Ervin, a Democrat representing the 17th District – oppose the boulevard idea because it would “halt traffic flow with a series of traffic lights.”

Clay Republican Legislator Casey Jordan said a boulevard “would be a huge mistake…It would effectively eliminate one of the main attractions of living in this area: the ease with which you can get around the community.”

Van Robinson disagrees. Replacing the viaduct with a street-level boulevard would breathe life into the city’s shriveling urban core, he said, and I-81 could go around the city the way I-481 has done since 1970. Robinson, who founded the local chapter of the NAACP, has wanted to remove I-81 since he first arrived in Syracuse decades ago. He ignited the ongoing dialogue with public statements he made in 2001.

Circle the city?

Although Rapp helped write the recent resolution, she’s less concerned about the boulevard idea and more concerned about a possible re-routing of I-81 around the city.

“We have in front of us maybe one of the biggest planning decisions to face this county in the next 100 years,” Rapp said. “We’re asking planners at the DOT to be sure that we continue to have a federal highway coming through our city and not going around our city.”

The Legislature’s May 7 resolution states, “any solution which would remove I-81’s vital function from its present alignment would irreparably cripple the regional economy and corresponding employment which has grown up around the highway network.”

Rapp is specifically wants to protect the investments of businesses in her 5th District which located in Salina to be near I-81 exits and entrances. “I’m representing the concerns of my constituents,” she said, “people who have invested their life savings to locate their businesses near the highway. I’m trying to protect their interests.”

Deb Nelson from the DOT stressed that I-81 planners are closely examining how any changes would affect local businesses. “Economic analysis is a critical piece,” Nelson said. “We’ve made it a priority…We need more public participation because a lot of decisions need to be made.”

Two liaison committees established

In 2011, the SMTC and state DOT formed two new committees to strengthen communication channels throughout the Syracuse region. The Community Liaison Committee (CLC) is comprised of representatives from community organizations whose missions cover issues including the environment, social justice, local neighborhoods, education, civic engagement, urban design, business and economic development and housing. The Municipal Liaison Committee (MLC) consists of representatives of municipalities within the SMTC planning area. While not decision-making bodies, both the CLC and MLC will play a critical role in The I-81 Challenge by:

-Disseminating information about The I-81 Challenge to their constituents.
-Providing input on community concerns.
-Ensuring diverse points of view are represented.
-Commenting on materials and methods for public involvement.
To join either committee, call 422-5716.