Monthly Archives: April 2009

“Rethinking I-81: OCL’s Study Blog

John O. Norquist, Change Agent

April 19, 2009

One of the panelists at this week’s annual meeting of the Metropolitan Development Association is John O. Norquist, a former lathe operator and community organizer who later became a state legislator and then mayor.  As mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, Norquist oversaw a revision of the city’s zoning code and reoriented development around walkable streets and public amenities such as the city’s 3.1-mile Riverwalk.   He also earned widespread recognition for championing the removal of a .8 mile stretch of the elevated Park East freeway, clearing the way for an anticipated $250 million in infill development in the heart of Milwaukee.

As current president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl, Norquist continues the highway to boulevard campaign, believing that urban boulevards offer an attractive option for cities with aging highway infrastructure.  Cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Milwaukee have found that removal of outdated elevated freeways – major physical and psychological barriers – stimulates investment and new development in the surrounding property.

A close examination of the Milwaukee experience is instructive for Central New York as we plan for the replacement of the deteriorated I-81 viaduct through Syracuse.

“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog


The Onondaga Citizens League “Rethinking I-81” Study Committee has studied the history and the physical condition of the I-81 corridor, reviewed access issues, and examined cases of freeway removals in American cities. The study report, including the committee’s findings and recommendations, will be issued later this spring. In considering the future of I-81 in Syracuse, the Committee found several factors concerning the elevated portion of I-81 important to an understanding of the project.

• Due to age and structural deterioration, the elevated portion of I-81 through Syracuse must be replaced, not simply repaired, in the near future. In its current configuration, the I-81 viaduct and ramps do not meet current design standards. The reconstruction project, whatever form it takes, will require a huge amount of public funds and a permanent reconfiguration of some traffic routes.

In its entire length, I-81 bypasses every downtown except for that of Syracuse. Syracuse is the only city in the entire 855 miles of the I-81 corridor where the highway bisects a city. Moving maximum volumes of cars as fast as possible is fine between cities, but is not good within cities, because the systems that make speed possible are bad for local businesses, neighborhoods, and economic development.

• Downtown Syracuse is the only place on I-81 where the speed limit is reduced to 45 mph. An interstate highway that serves a high proportion of local traffic, as well as regional traffic, does not serve either optimally.

• The SMTC University Hill Transportation Study (OCL blog post #4) concluded that tearing down I-81 in the Almond Street Corridor and rerouting through traffic might be feasible. The consultants recommended an in-depth study of an urban boulevard in lieu of the I-81 viaduct, with through traffic rerouted to I-481. The report predicted that a boulevard option would improve accessibility for commuters, visitors, and emergency vehicles, create better connections between downtown and University Hill, increase economic development opportunities, and improve air quality in the area.

• The I-81 corridor is a significant barrier between downtown and the economic engines on the Hill, devaluing the commercial and residential development potential of property all along the corridor. SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University are the area’s two largest employers. These growing institutions, and others in the area, need room to develop and expand and can generate residential, retail, commercial and additional institutional development. They grow best when they grow organically and are well connected not only by car and public transit, but also by foot and bicycle, and in terms of visual quality.

• The I-81 viaducts were recently put under a special on-going emergency repair contract by the New York State Department of Transportation, signaling that the aging infrastructure will require an increasing amount of unscheduled repair work. As much as any solution will cost, the financial cost, and safety considerations, of not making a timely decision could be even higher.