By Rep. Dan Maffei
What to do about Interstate 81 is one of the biggest decisions affecting the future of Central New York. The decision must be made, not by officials in Albany or Washington, but by citizens in Greater Syracuse.
Many who work in businesses, schools and hospitals use I-81 to commute and, even with Interstate 481 providing an alternate north-south route, the lion's share of through traffic uses I-81. Downtown Syracuse is literally at the crossroads of I-81 and Interstate 690. I-81 also divides our central city, limiting development of institutions on University hill and acting as a barrier to revitalizing downtown and surrounding historic neighborhoods. The viaduct is an eyesore and presents a dangerous environment for pedestrians, cyclists and even traffic underneath it. Other cities, such as Providence, Milwaukee and San Francisco, have moved or removed similar elevated highways and have experienced positive transformations of their urban cores as a result.
The current I-81 viaduct will reach the end of its useful life in 2017 so we all will have to deal with some sort of a change. Communities across the region have different needs and priorities when it comes to this project. But hopefully, we will learn from past planning mistakes as we consider what will be the most important planning decision the region has made in generations.
Just last week, the New York State Department of Transportation held a forum in Syracuse to present its I-81 study as well as two "feasible" options for I-81. The first option determined that I-81 could be torn down and reconstructed into an elevated highway similar but larger than the existing structure to accommodate updated highway standards. The second option would also tear down the current structure and in its place create a multiple lane boulevard with stoplights and extremely long crosswalks.
In my opinion, neither of these options is satisfactory. This Hobson's choice threatens to divide the city from the suburbs and many businesses from civic groups. It would divide Central New York at a time when cooperation is needed more than ever to expand our economy, create jobs, improve quality of life and revitalize our entire region. Given these considerations, neither of the state DOT's "feasible" options is acceptable.. Over the past 10 years, I've attended numerous forums, dialogues, and meetings about I-81. While leaders in communities around Central New York have very passionate and sometimes very different perspectives on what we should do, I do not believe that finding a consensus is impossible.
NYSDOT will cite the cost as a significant issue in determining the next steps for I-81. I agree that we need to be vigilant about how taxpayer dollars are spent and make smart investments, but both rebuilding an elevated highway and converting to a boulevard are hardly cheap. Many constituents have stressed to me the importance of fixing our crumbling roads and bridges in a way that builds on the livability of our region. We must make smart infrastructure investments that will pay off for our economy over the long term. We need some real options.
I understand that NYSDOT plans to hold public listening sessions to receive input on options for I-81, but I'm deeply concerned that the bureaucratic process does not truly allow for consideration of more creative plans. We must be proactive in our approach to this issue. Why can't we drop the interstate below ground level and create a series of bridges at street level that connect communities across the city? Why can't we reroute the expressway and connect it again on West Street? Why does a surface route need to be like another Erie Boulevard with multiple intersections and traffic signals as opposed to a parkway with limited stops?
When South side and University area neighborhoods were bulldozed decades ago to make way for Route-81, Mayor Anthony Henninger and other area leaders at the time expressed serious concerns. It was built anyway. This time, we all know the I-81 project is too important to the future of Central New York to move forward without broad support across our community. In this sense, the two "feasible" options offered by NYDOT are not feasible at all. Central New York deserves a better option.
Rep. Dan Maffei, D-DeWitt, represents the 24th Congressional District.