State urged to remove Syracuse's I-81

Official says 90,000 vehicles use the highway daily. Where would they go?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

By Marnie Eisenstadt, Staff writer

What would Syracuse look like without the maze of elevated concrete bridges that has carried Interstate 81 through the heart of the city for 40 years?

Syracuse Common Councilor Van Robinson sees a boulevard lined with trees, grass and business.

Bruce Stark, a Syracuse resident, sees people enjoying streets that are now covered by dark canopies of steel and cement.

"I see strollers, skateboarders, obese people walking from east to west," he said.

Both spoke Tuesday at a meeting of the Syracuse Planning Issues Group on the future of Interstate 81. When the elevated bridges were constructed decades ago, they cut Syracuse University off from downtown and lopped off streets on the South Side. Most of the bridges are nearing the end of their useful lives and a decision will have to be made about their future in the next five to 10 years, said Anthony Ilacqua, of the state Department of Transportation.

But he wouldn't speculate on what the solution should be, and was careful to note that decisions will be made only after the public is consulted.

"These decisions are not going to be made on the seventh floor of the state office building," Ilacqua said, referring to his department's office. "Removing the elevated portion of the highway is something that will be considered."

He said the potential ill effects of removing I-81 from the city should not be ignored. Up to 90,000 vehicles use the interstate through the city each day. If Robinson's plan were followed, and the interstate was removed from the middle of the city, those cars and trucks would have to find somewhere else to go.

"Traffic is growing," Ilacqua said. "What that tells us most is that people are using it."

Many of the travelers are city residents who use it to get from one end of the city to the other.

"They're people from Eastwood who want to go to the state fair. They're people who want to get on at Brighton and get off at Bear Street," Ilacqua said.

He also said that there is no data on how many trucks use that part of the highway to move freight through the city. That also would have to be weighed before a decision could be made about moving I- 81.

Mary Rowlands, director of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, said that in the coming year her group will have at least some idea of what could happen if certain parts of I-81 were removed. The SMTC is doing a study of the Syracuse University area looking at ways to increase access to the Hill.

The group has a sophisticated computer program that can predict what traffic will do if certain streets or sections of streets are closed.

Rowlands said that, as part of that study, SMTC is looking at ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle use under Interstate 81 where it crosses Adams Street.

Robert Haley, an architect and urban planner who has worked in Syracuse for decades, estimated that a quarter of the city is suffering in the shadow of Interstate 81. The nearby areas are hit with dirt, pollution and noise from the elevated highway.

"It's been a negative," he said.

But Tim Rudd, a city resident and recent graduate of Syracuse University, said that if people focus on the road uniting or dividing the city, they risk missing the point of what will bring true change.

"It is the connections and inter-connectedness of the people," he said.

2006 The Post-Standard.