Plans for the reconfiguration of Interstate 81 appear to be on the move. NYS Senator Rachel May has written a letter to Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez, New York State Department of Transportation regarding the upcoming project. In the letter, Senator May addresses her concerns; Relocation of residents, Environmental justice, Land Use and Economic justice. The following is a copy of the correspondence.
Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez, Esq.
New York State Department of Transportation
50 Wolf Road
Albany, New York 12232
Dear Commissioner Dominguez,
I was excited to hear in the Governor’s State of the State that groundbreaking on the I-81 project is now firmly in sight, and to learn as well that the incoming Transportation Secretary has been briefed by Sen. Schumer about the project and is eager to move forward on it. There is certainly a hunger to get started here in Central New York. However, it is also imperative that the time before groundbreaking is used to flesh out plans on a number of key issues that still do not have clear solutions.
Relocation of residents: Residents who live very close to the viaduct – in some cases within a few feet – are anxious to know how the project will affect their lives. Residents have raised concerns about living so close to this major construction project and inquired about a relocation plan during the construction project and the DOT has been silent on those concerns. They deserve to know when and how they will be relocated. In addition, there are many long term concerns about the future of the neighborhood closest to the viaduct. Pioneer Homes is one of the oldest still in use public housing facilities in the country and has faced years of disinvestment and air pollution from proximity to the highway. If the housing in that neighborhood is going to change, residents must be guaranteed a process through which they can obtain permanent, affordable housing in the neighborhood.
Environmental justice: The Dr. King STEAM Elementary School, with 96% black and brown enrollment, sits within a few hundred feet of the viaduct. Children are particularly susceptible to the health impacts of air and noise pollution, which inevitably accompany the close proximity of major roadways. The state should ensure that students there are protected from environmental impacts both during construction and in the overall design of the project. Concerning the construction phase, there is currently a plan to use Wilson Park as a staging area. Since many children and residents of the neighborhood use the park, the DOT should make efforts to find another staging area to avoid a dangerous situation. Regarding the final design, there is currently a proposed on/off ramp to the business loop within 500 feet of the school. The DOT should alter the plan to avoid the environmental hazards this would present to the school’s population. (My bill, S.922, will prohibit the construction of new schools within six hundred feet of a major roadway, for precisely this reason.)
Land Use and Economic justice: When the viaduct comes down, approximately 17 acres of land will open up for development. Many residents are worried about not having a say in what happens with that land. The 15th Ward that was destroyed to make way for the viaduct was a thriving Black community, and in the interests of justice, whatever comes next needs to be accessible and welcoming for those who currently live in the neighborhood. One solution, raised by NYCLU in their report and often talked about in Syracuse, is that of a limited equity land trust. If done right, this would encourage development while giving residents a say in land use decisions and an opportunity to build wealth. I encourage the state and city governments to work together on a plan and to communicate it clearly to residents.
These observations are drawn from many conversations with constituents, calls and letters to my office, community meetings, and a recent report written by the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has done immense community engagement work around the future of I-81. I highly recommend reading the report and considering the recommendations.
If I can be helpful as this project moves forward I would be happy to discuss or answer any questions.
Senator, 53rd District