The Onondaga Citizens League

I-81 looking South.





Here are the facts:  Interstate 81’s bridges are nearing the end of their useful life. The elevated freeway cutting through the city of Syracuse suffers from structural deterioration that will require the bridges to be replaced, not just repaired, within the next several years.   The project, whatever it looks like, will require huge amounts of public funds, and a permanent reconfiguration of at least some current traffic routes. Even if the viaduct through Syracuse is rebuilt, the on-ramps and off-ramps, which do not meet today’s highway standards, will not necessarily be replicated.  

The NYS Department of Transportation has embarked on the first phase of a review of the physical condition of the Interstate and a review of the related social, economic and environmental issues. State DOT has contracted with the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, a quasi-governmental group that oversees the regional transportation planning process, to lead a public input project on the I-81 concerns in Onondaga County and north to Central Square.  Each of those studies will take up to two years.  SMTC will also do transportation modeling, looking at the effects of various scenarios on traffic patterns.

The Onondaga Citizens League has begun its own exploration, “Rethinking I-81”, intended to help citizens think creatively about feasible alternatives to rebuilding the City’s I-81 viaduct and corridor through Syracuse.  We will begin by looking at what other cities have done in similar situations and examining alternative transportation plans for Syracuse.  In a way this “futuring” exercise requires us to think creatively about what our world will look like 50 years from now, and how we would like to live and work. The way we live today is radically different than the world of 50 years ago, when the highway was designed.  To some extent, the highway system has shaped our way of life.  As a community, we should ensure that a project with the potential to transform us also leads us to the place we’d like to become, not just  wherever the road takes us.

Hopefully, “Rethinking I-81” – the study and this blog – will start the conversation rolling.


28 thoughts on “The Onondaga Citizens League

  1. George Mango

    I-81 Study:

    It is a shame that the original plan for the I-81 location was not thought through originally. It unfortunately divided the city and created living environments for those who have and those who have not. The cost of removing the highway will be a burdon on each of us and will increase our already high taxes base. Perhaps in 50 years, well after I’m gone, the city may have a better face.

  2. Pingback: NYCO’s Blog » Extreme makeover, Route 81 edition

  3. JoeBass123

    personally, i think that a bypass (preferably rte-481) should be heavily improved on and be the main highway link for those traveling by automobile to all points north and south in onondaga county. i would love to see i-81 in the city turned into a ground-level parkway much like that of the rose kennedy green section of the big dig and the commonwealth avenue mall in boston, ma…

    comm ave mall…

    rose kennedy greenway…

  4. Susan Pelkey

    I think that part of the design of Interstate 86 through Horseheads, NY, was to prevent some of the issues that Syracuse has had. The structure was built to be more natural than the “cold steel” overpasses in Syracuse. They also have not really allowed for dark and scary areas under the overpasses. This could be helpful. Bringing 81 down to ground level seems to be more of an issue for accidents, etc. Maybe increasing the visual appeal could help somewhat. I wish I could find a better picture, but this is an example of what you see in the neighborhoods surrounding I-86 in Horseheads:

  5. Melissa Monroe

    Putting 81 underground would be great for the city! The effects of cutting through a city with an interstate highway is aesthetically, economically and socially devastating. We may learn alot from Boston’s BIG DIG project, where they too put their highway underground.

  6. Wes Belisle

    Yes, Melissa, we might learn a lot from Boston’s BIG DIG project: don’t do it. Its initial cost was estimated at somewhere near $5 billion and ended up being somewhere near $15 billion. In the end, the final product consisted of a leaky tunnel system that has killed people.

    Obviously, the scale wouldn’t be the same for Syracuse, but I’m fairly certain that “dig” projects probably have a decent track record of being fraught with cost-overrun issues. A city like Boston might be able to handle that, but if you want to see true “economic devastation”, try and imagine a small city like Syracuse absorbing that.

    Unlike everyone else, I see no problem with the way I-81 is currently implemented. Rerouting traffic around I-481 doesn’t seem like a viable option. Putting I-81 on the ground would most likely end up consisting of too many intersections. I don’t see why its current iteration is so maligned by everyone. In fact, I don’t think it is. I think it’s just a vocal minority of self-righteous academic types. The common citizen is probably pretty appreciative of it.

  7. Herve Girouard

    Underground is the only way to go. Using techniques developed during the Big Pig in Boston it would be quick and relatively simple to do. The problems encountered in Boston (200+ year old infrastructure, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean )wouldn’t be a factor here. We wouldn’t need a new bridge or underwater tunnels. We wouldn’t need to tunnel underneath existing subway tunnels without disrupting service. If the state could afford the cost, augmented by federal funds, the project would take much less time and money that the job in Boston. It would create jobs and pump badly needed money into the local economy.

  8. Finn McCool

    Syracuse has been cut in two for hundreds of years. The Erie Canal, the railroads, and Rt 81 which was built over urban renewal property. Other major cities have the same problem, Rochester for one. In Rochester the expressways are at ground level. This removed city streets. At least in Syracuse we have the expressway above and our city streets below. The state DOT has not been able to look into their crystal ball to see the furture. If they had they would have completed the RT 481 western loop to connect with RT 695 in Fairmount. This would have given the motorist a loop around Syracuse and you might have been able to remove Rt 81 from the downtown area. Instead the DOT sold the land. Reconstruction and beautification is the answer.

  9. Adam

    I think that I-81 should just stay where it is because everyone is going to have pay more in taxes to do this. Do people that are focused on restructuring I-81 costs a lot of money. No these people are focused on whats best for syracuse, Just leave the highway the way it is. We have roadways that go underneath I-81. I understand that Syracuse has been split in half but removing the highway is not the answer. Thousands and thousands of people use I-81 to commute everyday to and from work. The highway should just remain where it is because the Citizens League has nothing better to do then focus on a highway that has been there for years. The city is already divided into sides so removing the highway does not need to be done. Wasting taxpayer money is not an option right now considering everything costs more money.

  10. oclblog

    A clarification: OCL is studying the issue of I-81 through Syracuse now because the elevated bridges are deteriorating and WILL HAVE TO BE REPLACED, NOT JUST REPAIRED, within the next several years. EVEN IF THE ELEVATED HIGHWAY IS REBUILT THROUGH SYRACUSE, IT WILL BE DIFFERENT THAN IT IS TODAY. The on-ramps and off-ramps, for example, which do not meet today’s highway standards, will not necessarily be replaced. OCL believes that it is best to begin considering alternativesin advance of the necessity to rebconstruct, including alternatives which very well may be cheaper to build and less expensive to maintain in the long run, as well as have other benefits.

  11. Toby Nadel

    The city has been bifurcated since the construction of I 81 downtown, both actually and figuratively. The SU main campus is divided away from downtown.
    Greater issues are with the deeper snows which must be transported by truck away from the city center. The drains are now rusting and ice hangs from almost every leader. Rusting of the underside is evident.
    The problems are worth tackling at this time of energy costs and usages, and relate to the highway in that real options such as improved transportation, ride sharing and the like need reconsideration. Of course, it must be determined how much loss of downtown access will there be if the highway is gone. There may be greater usage. Right now downtown has diminished for usage and occupancy in last several decades. (While tempting, it is not logical to assume that the I81 caused hte decline, but neither can we say it did not.
    The biggest single advantage was, and is, of course, the speed to drive down town. Higher speeds equal high energy costs per mile.
    What routes will be available if the elevated highway is abandoned? Should parking be free to stimulate shopping? Should we have pedestrian only zones in the central areas, as is successfully done for years in Europe?

  12. Charley Chajka

    One thing to consider when recommending the removal of I 81 through Syracuse :

    If we remove the Interstate , the remaining road becomes part of our tax base.
    This will require our City or County or both to maintain the remaining road at our cost.

  13. Wes Belisle

    re: oclblog.
    You attempt to disseminate information as unbiased but your biases are ridiculously transparent. I don’t care if the bridges do need to be replaced (I won’t resort to “screaming” the words like you did). The bridges can be replaced and new on ramps can be built as necessary. You claim they can’t be built in the same places. Okay…bulldoze some stuff. Honestly, I’m not sure I buy your supposition that that they *can’t* be rebuilt as they stand, but if not, I’m sure there are a lot of civil engineers that can make it work.

    Really, you want to garner all these fancy “ideas” but you’re ignoring the obvious one: leave it the way it is. Rebuild it as necessary. It is a vital artery and is the cheapest and most efficient solution we have…that’s why it was done in the first place.

  14. CJ Wolf

    It’s hard not to be biased when passionate over our city. Clinton Square renovations have surely resulted in many opinions, both pro and con. End result for me is I enjoy the opportunities it has provided my family to be entertained, and to get me out of the burbs and into my city. I dread the stretch of 81 from the airport to Nedrow. It contextually removes a key intimacy with the inner city and opportunity to expose “outsiders” to what Syracuse has to offer. I know, I know, but think of the options if a ground level route was introduced and the areas around were developed on a more human scale. Did someone say Wegmans? And it couldn’t slow traffic down any more than it already is – on a yearly basis. Anyway, keep up the chatter – small think tanks / blogs such as these can possibly be the start of something grand. Blessings.

  15. Siegfried Snyder

    Aaron Knight’s thesis is anything but boring. In fact, it ought to be required reading for everyone joining in this discussion.

  16. ChrisL

    Wes Belisle, what is reidiculously transparent is the fact that you do not live in the City of Syracuse, but that you are one of the many cheap conservatives that lives in Cicero or North Syracuse, if I may venture to guess. Not to sound like one of the so-called “self-righteous academic types” thus far derided on this blog, I have to say that anyone who has been Downtown, seen the things it has done to the city, and read or studied anything about urban theory and the effects of the interstate system on all of America’s city centers would agree that 81 needs to be rethought.
    From a purely economic point of view, which seems to be your main concern, and not the aesthetic or social consequences of the decision, there is a growing consensus among planners and policy maker of the existence of cluster-based pattern of urban development. That is, business tend to develope in concentrated nodes and attract other business in related fields due to lower costs of entry, infrastructure improvement, and availability of a specialized workforce. Syracuse is in a great position to develope a couple of these clusters, namely in the healthcare-biomedical fields and in sustainable design, construction and research. However, most of the facilities for this work are concentrated on the SU hill and are separated from Downtown physically by 81 and, consequently, mentally in the thought process of developers. Eliminating or reducing this barrier would go a long way in fostering a connection between the two and the pooling of resources for the common good of the region and its citizens.
    Furhter more, by keeping the Interstate, the city if just expediting the draianage of resources from inside its limits. The fact that people can get from Downtown out to the suburbs where you live in such a sort time makes it impossible for city retailers and other businesses to attract any customers besides the small population that lives there. Making commuters have to spend more time going in and out will only increase the retail and residential opportunities there and only increase the revenues generated by the city. It will also necessitate the development of much needed public transit system or other alternatives which are proving to be much more practical and cost effective than the auto-centric system we have now, which is draining our economy in the form of high fuel prices.

  17. dt84

    syou need to remember that the highway seperates SU from the projects. Seperating SU from the high crime central village is crucial.

  18. ChrisL

    I don’t understand why that is crucial. I think the only people who perceive that threat are people who have never really been in that part of the city or are from the suburbs and see anything to do with the projects, poverty, or the city as dangerous and violent. Those things do go hand in hand in hand in some cases, but that is definitely not always true, and I think the perception of danger of violence and crime is very much exaggerated. I have friends who lived in the dorms down near that area, male and female, who never had a problem and never heard of or saw any problems with anybody else. Also, I don’t know if you saw the Post Standard this weekend, but there was a report by the police department that said that the majority of crimes across the country, including Syracuse, are committed by people who know their victim, they are usually not just random acts of violence and theft. Its not like lowering 81 will open the gates to barbarous hords who are chomping at the bit to rape and pillage the campus. If history has shown us anything, it is that fear, especially between groups of people who do not really understand each other, has prevented many beneficial and potentially great things from happening. Don’t stop a project that could really benefit the city because you are afraid of people and of an area that you really don’t know anything about.

  19. dt84

    ookay, sorry but i work in the central village and live on the south side. take your suburban rant somewhere else. You have NO idea what goes on down there, take a stroll through sometime.

  20. Keith Gatling

    OK, so maybe it can be done.

    I was originally a naysayer to the idea of totally getting rid of 81 through downtown, citing the people who needed to get from Nedrow to Liverpool, the ease of access to downtown, and the fact that no matter what we do, someone’s ox is gonna get gored. It was also based on the fact that I never found it to be a barrier to getting downtown from SU, and the fact that a boulevard as I had perceived it would be even harder to cross than what was already there (I was envisioning having to cross East Genesee Street near the Wegman’s shrine). Then, of course, there was the question of quick access to the hospitals in the area.

    But I took a quick glance at some of the pictures in the study at , and I came away thinking a little differently.

    I came to the conclusion that if you re-routed 81 to 481, turned the current 81 heading north from there into a long exit ramp into the city, with the boulevard starting at about Burt St, and then at about Genesee Street had that boulevard lead to ramps leading to 690 and what would now be designated 481, it just might work.

    People would still be able to get to and from downtown, through traffic could still get from Binghamton to Watertown, there would still be quick access to the hospitals, since the redesignated “exit ramps” would still put you in the exact same places they did before, and you’d be rid of your “ugly eyesore” and “psychological barrier.”

    But there are still a few questions that remain. One of them is whether or not the current 481 is wide enough to handle the increased capacity of the diverted through traffic around the city. I know that I enjoy taking 481 south on my way to work every morning and having the “reverse commute” from Syracuse to DeWitt. I wonder what the increased traffic on the current 481 will do to my travel time and my quality of life. Right now I have an 11-minute commute door-to-door. With the diverted traffic, it could only get worse.

    But as I’ve said before, no matter what we do, somebody’s ox is gonna get gored here.

  21. Keith Gatling

    Now, as far as ChrisL’s comment goes about people with certain opinions on 81 obviously not living in the City; I’ve lived in Syracuse for 34 years, ever since I came here for SU, and I wouldn’t move to DeWitt or Fayetteville if you paid me. This city kid from North Jersey loves being able to walk to the corner store, loves having sidewalks and city blocks, and just the whole thing of living in a residential area of a city.

    Now that having been said, I never had a problem with 81 where it was. It was properly situated to get me back and forth between SU and North Jersey. It was properly situated to get my wife and I between our first apartment in Clarendon Heights and our church out in Liverpool. It was properly situated to get us from our old house in Eastwood to our sitter’s house in the Valley. I’m a dedicated city-dweller who regularly uses 81 as it exists now. And I have to say that during the 16 years that I lived in the University area, not once did I consider it to be a barrier to my getting downtown from campus.

    But this may be because my hometown of East Orange NJ was “divided” by the raised tracks of the DL&W (now NJ Transit), on reinforced concrete structures that I loved as a kid, even though by then it was clear that they had seen better days. Perhaps what made them seem less of a barrier and less threatening to people is that, like 690, they mostly ran through the middle of the block, and behind businesses, so that while there were underpasses at every corner, there wasn’t the vast open area that we have under the current 81. Except for the spots along the elevated line that served as the East Orange and Brick Church stations and parking for them, the entire undersection of the raised line was enclosed. Anyway, being used to passing beneath the DL&W viaducts whenever I went to the library, the barbershop, my grandparents’ house, choir rehearsal, and the homes of various girls that I liked in high school, passing under 81 to get downtown was no biggie, and I did that by foot and by bike on a regular basis.

    So I”m not some elitist suburbanite who uses 81 to get into the city and then escape back to my “safe” haven. Quite the contrary I work in the burbs and bring my money into the city, and I’m a city person who uses 81 to get to the many other places and people within this wonderful county that I’d like to visit. After all, let’s face it, Syracuse is a wonderful place to live, but it doesn’t have everything.

    As a result I think that we should think very carefully before we tear the current 81 down, thinking it will be the magic solution to all of the problems of the past. It won’t cure the past, and even with our best efforts and best studies done with current information there will be some trends and changes we can’t forsee. And maybe 50 years hence, we’ll actually regret moving 81 from its current alignment, because of changes we couldn’t have begun to anticipate today. Maybe we’ll regret them as little as 20 years hence. We can’t know for sure, and admitting that right from the beginning is very important to this process.

  22. Keith Gatling

    One more thing about my conversion to an “It can be done” person.

    Even with the conversion of 81 between the current southern end of 481 and Burt to a long exit ramp, the entrance ramps to 690 and a redefined 481 starting at about Genesee St, and an Almond Bouldvard sitting between them, a person driving from Nedrow to Liverpool could still do it quickly by taking the exit ramp to the boulevard and then the on ramp to the new 481. This might add one more minute to their trip if they hit every single traffic light wrong.

    But no matter what we do, we have to remember that people <b?in the city use that route to get to other place in the city. It’s not just the dreaded exurbanites (and let’s face it, don’t we all enjoy visiting our friends and relatives who live out in places like Tully and Fabius?).

  23. ChrisL

    In response to dt84’s comment, I actually live on the south side, too, near the intersection of bellevue and onondaga, what some people might call one of the worst parts of the city, and I went to Corcoran High School, with some of the kids you are suggesting we seal off from the university area, and never had any problems.
    In addition, Keith is right in that access to the university is not all that limited now, especially to the projects you are talking about, which are just right across almond street, and has seen hardly any ill effects from it. Saying that you don’t want to take down 81 because you want to protect the university is a poor reason and one that I wouldnt expect from someone who lives where you do. You of all people should know that alot of peoples fears are unrealistic and unwarranted, created by misinformation the focus by the media on the negative.

  24. Keith Gatling

    Hmm…I’m looking at the map of the portion of 81 from exit 16a at 481 to 18 at Adams Street, and there are a few other things to be considered if you think about my idea of “the long exit ramp.”

    First of all, there’s the fact that there are three places where people get onto the current 81 northbound between those two points, and a lot of that could well be intracity traffic. People going from Nob Hill to the north side, Or from Calthrop Ave to the University area. I’ve used it quite a bit to get from Colvin to 690.

    With this in mind, that “long exit ramp” should still include “entrances” of a sort from where those current entrances are, with the understanding that many people just to the north of exit 16 use it as an intracity bypass.

    Second, it would be nice if, as a part of this process, the two halves of East Raynor were reconnected. I lived on East Raynor for two years as an undergrad, and had no idea that there was another half to it on the other side of 81. I knew there was another street over there, you could see it. But I didn’t know that it was my street. Was there some practical engineering reason why Raynor was cut off rather than bridged over, or was it a “social” one like sealing off the “bad” neighborhood from SU?

    I still wonder about people from Nob Hill getting to the airport, I’m just so used to it being a straight shot right up 81 to Hancock. But I suppose people could learn to deal with taking “the long exit” to Almond Blvd for a few blocks before getting onto “new 481” on the way the airport.

    AHA! I just had another idea. Suppose Almond Blvd began at exit 16 as a limited access road (allowing it to still be used as an intracity bypass), and then became more of an urban boulevard when it crossed the railroad tracks just below Brewster-Boland. Van Buren Street would have to be slightly reconfigured to intersect with it after it dropped from passing over the tracks, but I think it could work. And the entire length of Almond Blvd, from Exit 16 to the 690/481 on ramps at Genesee Street, could be given an official State Highway number and signage. Think about it, the entire length of NY-635 (Thompson Rd) from the Carrier Circle Thruway exit to Erie Blvd is only 2.5 miles. This would be 3.

  25. Keith Gatling

    You know, I’ve been thinking about this whole “dividing the community” thing, and even putting roads “in the middle of nowhere” doesn’t free us from controversy. The king of roads, Robert Moses, was notorious for not considering the property lines of farmers out on Long Island when planning his parkways. Shouldn’t we also be careful not to isolate the residents of two adjacent rural properties from each other when we run a highway between them rather than through the city? Does it not matter as much that they can’t just lean over the fenceposts to talk to each other, or shout at each other from across the field anymore? In short, does city quality of life trump country quality of life?

    And what about the community that crosses municipal borders? When 1-80 was being planned in New Jersey, the town of Leonia was successful in having its route changed to follow its borders rather than cutting through the middle of it, but what about the neighborhoods that existed along and across those borders? Weren’t they important, or was there nothing there at the time?

  26. ChrisL

    Keith, first of all, 481 already exists, so the point of building a new highway and dividing new communities is moot. Second of all, the existing 481 runs mostly through unihabited land or swamp, although there area few developments which all face away from the highway and have no missing connections to the other side. So, by diverting traffic off 81 to 481, we arent building anything new or changing the current physical situation of communities near 481. Actually, if anything, 481 is UNDERutilized as it stands now, as lots of people could tell you after traveling 81 and 481 and then comparing the two.

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