A viaduct or a wall: I-81 in Syracuse

By Mary Ebeling
Interstate 81, known locally as “the viaduct”, slices through the middle of Syracuse in upstate New York. The aging, elevated freeway effectively forms a barrier between the city and the Syracuse University neighborhood known as the Hill. People have called the viaduct a Berlin Wall. As the process began to consider the fate of the viaduct, representatives from the city, university, metro area, and state issued a letter calling for a collaborative effort to evaluate the alternatives and decide whether to replace, repurpose, or rebuild the highway. This process could serve as a model for other communities wrestling with a similar decision.

I-81 challenge
The I-81 Challenge

Recognizing that the decision on I-81 will impact city residents and the region for decades to come, the Syracuse Metropolitan Planning Council and the New York State Department of Transportation began a series of meetings to solicit input on the future of the viaduct. This effort evaluates the needs and desires of those who use I-81 and live or work in the area.  The planning and outreach project, dubbed the I-81 Challenge, asks residents, agencies, and other stakeholders to come to the table and contribute to a vision for how the freeway might look under a variety of alternatives. After extensive public input and engineering and cost analysis, the group has narrowed the alternatives to either a boulevard or reconstruction.

Many, including the current NYSDOT Commissioner, are excited about developing a new vision for what the elevated highway could or should be.  A coalition of local businesses, education, and political leaders interested in supporting new economic development in downtown have called this an “opportunity of a lifetime” for reinvigorating downtown Syracuse. This coalition cites elevated freeways that have been successfully removed in other urban areas, and asserts that the existing viaduct is harming the economic vitality of the city by segregating downtown from the university district and by severing neighborhood, social, and economic connections. Opinions are not unanimous, however. Some commercial establishments that have based their business models on easy access on and off the highway are understandably leery of removing the viaduct.

The viaduct in Syracuse is one of many urban freeways at the end of their design life, and rebuilding poses major challenges. Over the five decades or so that these expressways have cut through cities, the long- term costs and benefits have become clear. Costs include long-term maintenance, environmental degradation, and health impacts of poor air quality including asthma, heart disease, etc. Freeways slice through a city’s grid, separating neighbors from each other and from employment and commercial centers. Additionally, a freeway consumes an enormous amount of real estate that is not on tax rolls, and adjacent properties are often blighted. On the benefit side, urban freeways are often credited with aiding in the growth of interstate commerce and increasing mobility for long-distance travelers.

The time is right to rethink, redesign, or repurpose urban freeways. Decisions on the fate of an individual freeway will be very place-specific, and involve serious discussion on policy, budget, current and future infrastructure needs, and other considerations. As communities wrestle with this decision, there are more examples of the options available when considering the fate of an aging urban freeway.

I-81 pic