Controversial I-81 Redirection Halted Amidst Lawsuits

Photo shows elevated section of I-81 in downtown Syracuse. Photo Credit: "Daniel Lobo" on Wikimedia Commons

By Contributing Writer Riley Kim (’24)

Attention drivers! A momentous change is happening to one of Syracuse’s key roadways in the future. The elevated section of I-81 is set to be torn down and replaced after being in the area since its construction was completed in 1969.

I-81 is an interstate that runs from Tennessee to the Canadian border. The part that is getting reconstructed is the 1.4 mile section of elevated platform that runs through Syracuse. The section of the interstate is quite controversial, as its construction carved through Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Many of the white people in the area were able to move into suburbs through home loans, but the Black community was unable to get loans, and were therefore forced to stay, according to an article run by The Atlantic about the effects of I-81’s construction. The Atlantic also cites zoning rules as having helped to keep the lower class in more poverty-stricken areas and attract specific types of homeowners. Many poor people moved into the areas that had been left behind by upper and middle class people moving to suburbs, causing a cycle of poverty in the area and separating the two communities into vastly different areas.

People favoring I-81 reconstruction have a plan to help knit together the communities that have been separated by the construction of I-81. The plan is to tear down the elevated platform and replace it with a community grid, which will help to disperse traffic along local north-south and east-west streets. The grid will improve crosswalks, allowing for improved passage by bike or by walking. The community grid may also help to reduce emissions spread into nearby neighborhoods as many diesel trucks will be redirected onto southbound I-81.

Doug Brugge, a public health professor for the University of Connecticut, said when interviewed by Central Current, “If it really is true that they make a boulevard and the trucks go around a different way, then that’s going to reduce pollution a lot.” This is because the exhaust won’t flow down into the streets, smothering the neighboring homes and people. Additionally, the grid will redirect the traffic that would have flowed across the viaduct onto I-481 and I-690, both of which will have minor renovations. These renovations include a new third lane on I-481 between I-90 and I-690 as well as improved exits and new exits for the interstates, allowing for better flow of traffic.

Construction for this project has been halted by a group called Renew I-81. This group filed two lawsuits in both state and federal court, arguing that the project would result in traffic delays and backups, and that the project leaders failed to consider other options. These lawsuits have resulted in a court-ordered pause of construction until January 12 after the oral arguments are given. The group is led by former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler. When the New York State Department of Transportation was asked for comment on the I-81 project and lawsuit, they declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuits. Leaders of Renew I-81 couldn’t be reached for comment.

The I-81 project has the chance to repair the neighborhoods and communities destroyed by the original construction of the elevated highway as well as reduce emissions of the area. But its fate now hangs in the balance amidst lawsuits by community leaders.

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