An interstate highway: NPR
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.
âWe don’t even have a grocery store nearby,â she says.
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, âhe said.
Robinson, who founded the local branch of the NAACP, has wanted to do away with I-81 since arriving in Syracuse decades ago.
âIt was a divided city,â 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.
âIt’s not like it’s a hundred miles of rig that we have to lay down. It’s 1.4 miles,â he says.
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.
âWe’re in full fledged spread mode right now,â 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.
Zack Seward for NPR
âIf the rest of the traffic were to pass through the city streets as they are now, that would be a problem,â 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.
âFive years ago our structural engineer gave us a rough estimate of the entire deck replacement and it was about $ 350 million,â 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.
âIt’s a huge psychological and physical barrier,â 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, âshe 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.