The future of I-81

This summer, state transportation officials, activists, and community leaders have been discussing what a revamp of Interstate 81 in the city might look like. 

The highway, which goes through Syracuse, has long been a hub of transportation through Central New York. However, it has a long and dark history. In the 1950s, federal planners decided to place a highway going through the city. They decided to route it directly through the 15th ward, a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood.

When I-81 was constructed, the 15th Ward was replaced with an elevated highway, forcing African Americans who had lived in the neighborhood to move elsewhere in the city. Concurrently, white residents began moving to the suburbs. To places like Manlius.

According to a profile of the Interstate system in The Atlantic, Syracuse lost 30 percent of its population in the sixty years from 1940 to 2000, while Onondaga County as a whole saw a 55 percent population increase. And on top of that, the city has grown to have the nation’s highest concentration of poverty.

It is with this backdrop of racism and poverty that I-81 has reached essentially the end of its life span and will need a replacement.

Planning began in 2011 by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC). Various organizations were consulted in the process.

Alternatives that were studied included building a tunnel under the city, reconstructing and widening the elevated highway, and dispersing traffic with a “community grid.” 

According to The Post Standard, in August 2021 an updated $2 billion plan was released by the state and opened up for public comment. Public hearings were held on August 17 and 18.

The state has settled on a “community grid” plan with the support of political heavyweights such as Andrew Cuomo, Charles Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Peter Buttigieg, and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh.

The NYSDOT commissioner has described their proposal as “a once in a generation opportunity to truly right the wrongs of the past, creating equity, enhancing sustainability, and really catapulting the city of Syracuse and central New York to new heights.”

In the plan, half a billion dollars will be invested into improving I-481, which goes around the city, an off-ramp will be added, a roundabout added near Dr. King Elementary School with the intent of slowing down traffic, and traffic walls potentially added. The project is scheduled to be completed in approximately five years.

Critics of the plan include Destiny USA, which has long fought it, arguing that the revamp could drive customers away from the mall. Others have criticized the state’s data as ‘out of date’ and the proposed traffic circle as being ‘too close to an elementary school.’