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Demolition of elevated I-81 through Syracuse looks set to go ahead

Creation of ‘community grid’ would have trucks largely bypassing the city on what is now I-481

Image: New York State Department of Transportation

Plans to tear down a section of Interstate 81 that goes through a low-income area of Syracuse, New York, and replace its key section with an urban boulevard, routing most truck traffic around the city, appear to have become reality.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has the Syracuse project in the recent reveal of her $32.8 billion  State Capital Plan.

It is a project that the Trucking Association of New York opposes in its current form, according to Kendra Hems, executive director of the TANY. In an email to FreightWaves, Hems said TANY is opposed to the current iteration of the viaduct elimination, known as a “community grid.” “Our main priority was to keep the interstate, which could have been done as a hybrid solution with a bridge or tunnel,” Hems said. She added that her organization has had discussions with the governor’s office.

TANY also is a member of the Save 81 coalition, Hems said, a group that is fighting the community grid option.

“Reconnecting neighborhoods that were severed by asphalt highways is a cornerstone of our bold infrastructure vision for a better New York,” Hochul said in a prepared statement released in conjunction with the plan. Hochul recently appeared at an event in Buffalo where she put forth a similar project, altering the Kensington Expressway, as one that might be funded under the plan.

But the Syracuse project is further along in planning. Hochul met with the editorial board of the Syracuse Post-Standard. In a report on that meeting, the newspaper said Hochul told the editorial board that “there are no other options under consideration.”

“There will be no skyway or another elevated highway or a tunnel — none of the other options the state and federal governments have entertained for years,” the newspaper reported. Hochul also told the editorial board that construction would begin in the fall. 

There is $1.1 billion in the state’s budget request for the project, which would need to be approved by April 1. That is less than the full estimate of the project, which has been reported as closer to $2 billion.

The Syracuse project has long been cited by advocates of what is loosely called the “new urbanism” as one of their highest priorities. Criticism of the I-81 viaduct has been that when constructed more than 50 years ago, it bisected a low-income area and further aggravated the community’s economic woes by disrupting its social fabric.

In the draft environmental impact statement, planners wrote, “the Community Grid Alternative would disperse traffic throughout the city grid, using the existing street network.”

The combination boulevard and smaller highway would begin and end at the spots where the existing I-81 corridor through Syracuse intersects with Interstate 481 north and south of the city. Traffic that wants to avoid the city would be rerouted onto what is now I-481 but which would be redesignated as Interstate 81.

Hems said her organization’s members have estimated that the loop around the city will tack on 14 minutes beyond what it takes now to drive through Syracuse on the elevated highway, without congestion. “While it doesn’t seem like much on paper, with today’s hours-of-service requirements and ELDs it will have a significant impact on productivity,” she said.

After the viaduct is gone, it would transition into a road that at each end still resembles an interstate but which transforms into a boulevard, with a traffic circle/roundabout roughly halfway from the two ends. A video rendering of what the drive would look like has been posted by the state. 

Besides the mall, the existing I-81 passes the city’s airport and Syracuse University. 

Although TANY would like options other than the community grid to be studied, Hems indicated she thought that was unlikely. The New York State Department of Transportation “has identified the grid as the preferred alternative and we don’t see [the Federal Highway Administration] raising any substantial concerns that would force them to change that determination,” she said.

Regardless of whether the boulevard option was implemented, something needed to be done to the viaduct. As the draft environmental impact statement said not just of 81 but also of Interstate 690, an east-west highway that intersects with 81 in Syracuse, “many of their components which were constructed primarily in the 1960s, are nearing the end of their design service life.”

There do not appear to be any significant Syracuse or New York state public officials opposed to the project. The one source of opposition is coming from Save 81. While its website does not appear to have been updated for many years, it maintains an active Facebook page. 

An email and a Facebook message sent by FreightWaves to Save 81 were not returned.

Although TANY is a member, Save 81 is believed to be backed mostly by the owners of the Destiny Mall, a large shopping center described as a “super regional” mall that sits not only along the portion of I-81 that would be torn down, but also on Onondaga Lake. 

One recent area of focus in its postings: the traffic circle. “Syracuse would be the FIRST city in the COUNTRY to have a highway dump 43K cars a DAY into a roundabout at an elementary school,” Save 81 says in one recent Facebook post. “You read that right. Nowhere else in the country has this EVER happened.”

Save 81 has lined up behind a replacement elevated road called the Harriet Tubman Memorial Freedom Bridge, which would be a new viaduct but which renderings make it look more like a bridge rather than an elevated highway. Save 81 says on its Facebook page that it has the backing for that project of numerous descendants of Tubman, whose activities along the Underground Railroad led many escaped slaves to freedom above the Mason-Dixon line.

For trucks heading into the city, Hems sees “additional delays due to having to stop at multiple intersections, increased fuel use from idling at those intersections, increased interaction with pedestrians and bicyclists [safety] concerns and loss of productivity.”

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.