An interstate highway: NPR

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A sign for Interstate 81 sits under an overpass in Syracuse, New York. City officials and residents are debating what to do about an aging stretch of highway that runs through the city.

Zack Seward for NPR


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Zack Seward for NPR


A sign for Interstate 81 sits under an overpass in Syracuse, New York. City officials and residents are debating what to do about an aging stretch of highway that runs through the city.

Zack Seward for NPR

Interstate 81 runs through the heart of Syracuse, New York, where an elevated 1.4 mile stretch of freeway is known locally as the “overpass.” Like many road projects built in the middle of the last century, I-81 is coming up against the end of its service life. While authorities say it’s always safe to drive, the freeway is crumbling in places.

Now the region is starting to think about what Syracuse could look like without the viaduct, which both speeds up traffic in the city and divides the community along economic and racial lines. If the viaduct is demolished, Syracuse will join San Francisco and Milwaukee, where the removal of urban freeways over the past two decades has spurred development. Yet, this is at the start of the process.

Syracuse’s “Berlin Wall”

Hazel Miller lives about 100 feet from I-81 in Pioneer Homes, a low-rise social housing project in Syracuse. She moved there 40 years ago, when the houses were still being demolished to make way for the elevated highway.

I-81 in Syracuse was built right in the middle of one of New York State’s first social housing projects, devastating this predominantly African-American neighborhood. Since Miller lived there, the freeway has driven trade away.

“We don’t even have a grocery store nearby,” she says.

Hazel Miller’s house is located approximately 100 feet from I-81. She moved into Pioneer Homes, a low-rise social housing project, 40 years ago, when the houses were still being demolished to make way for the highway.

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Hazel Miller’s house is located approximately 100 feet from I-81. She moved into Pioneer Homes, a low-rise social housing project, 40 years ago, when the houses were still being demolished to make way for the highway.

Zack Seward for NPR

Syracuse Joint Council chairman Van Robinson said replacing the viaduct with a street-level boulevard would bring the city’s withered urban core to life. He has long considered the viaduct as a barrier that separates the haves from the have-nots.

“It is not a question of if it should be demolished. The question is when will it be demolished, ”he said.

Robinson, who founded the local branch of the NAACP, has wanted to do away with I-81 since arriving in Syracuse decades ago.

“It was a divided city,” he says. “In fact, I immediately, at that time … called it the ‘Berlin Wall’.”

On one side of this wall is the thriving University Hill, home to the institutions that boost Syracuse’s local economy. On the other side, there is poverty and neglect. A few years ago, some streets in Pioneer Homes were closed in response to a wave of drive-by shootings. Robinson says dismantling I-81 is a relatively simple step that could help transform the neighborhood.

“It’s not like it’s a hundred miles of rig that we have to lay down. It’s 1.4 miles,” he says.

Shock sticker

A few years ago, Emanuel Carter, a professor at the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry at State University of New York, partnered with a local citizens’ league for a study called “Rethinking I -81 “. The main conclusion was that the removal of the I-81 viaduct would stimulate significant development.

“We’re in full fledged spread mode right now,” Carter said. “And one of the ways we can kind of refocus on the core would be to have [I-81] stop being an obstacle.

Bill Egloff, the New York State Department of Transportation project manager who is responsible for keeping I-81 standing, admits something needs to be done about the freeway. It plays a vital role in making Syracuse what city planners call a “20-minute city,” where you can drive wherever you need to quickly and easily. But Egloff says demolishing it isn’t an easy fix.

Bill Egloff, I-81 Project Manager for the New York State Department of Transportation, and Meghan Vitale of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council stand under the I-81 overpass in Syracuse, NY

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Bill Egloff, I-81 Project Manager for the New York State Department of Transportation, and Meghan Vitale of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council stand under the I-81 overpass in Syracuse, NY

Zack Seward for NPR

“If the rest of the traffic were to pass through the city streets as they are now, that would be a problem,” he says.

The state’s Department of Transportation is in the early stages of a planning process called the I-81 Challenge. Town planners recently assessed public opinion on three basic options: keeping the viaduct and bringing it up to current standards; cut it down and build a causeway below; or cut it down and build a boulevard. Egloff says none of the options will be cheap.

“Five years ago our structural engineer gave us a rough estimate of the entire deck replacement and it was about $ 350 million,” says Egloff.

Planning officials now say the “cheap” option would cost at least half a billion dollars. Traditionally, almost all of this cost is paid for by the federal government.

It is a big investment with a big impact on the future of the city.

A long and lasting shade?

Don Mitchell, professor of geography at Syracuse University, fears the removal of I-81 could trigger a wave of gentrification. Still, he says he’s generally in favor of dismantling one of the city’s most unattractive assets.

“It’s a huge psychological and physical barrier,” Mitchell says.

But for Hazel Miller, I-81 in her backyard is part of what she calls the “beautiful landscape” of flowing traffic. She prefers to keep the viaduct as it is. Miller is not convinced that what may follow will be better.

“I don’t know how wide this [proposed] boulevard is going to be, but I know [there] there wouldn’t be that many tractor-trailers and things like that, ”she said.

Officials say an action plan for I-81 won’t be in place until 2017. In the meantime, the elevated freeway will continue to cast its long shadow.


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