Over the course of the past few years, the New York State Department of Transportation has developed a $2 billion plan to replace much of Interstate 81, which is becoming too old and too dangerous for the current traffic travelled on it. This plan will directly impact Syracuse. The plan would tear down a part of I-81 that runs through the city and replace it with a state Business Loop, known as BL 81, in which highway traffic would be re-routed onto Interstate 481.
There were 17 plans proposed for the reconstruction that were considered. To narrow it down, ten were rejected, three were passed the first round of review, and three made the final cut. Ultimately, the DOT opted to follow through with a plan known as the “Community Grid Alternative.” The reasoning behind selecting this plan was “based on a balanced consideration of the need for safe and efficient transportation; the social, economic and environmental effects of the project alternatives; and national, state and local environmental protection goals,” said the DOT in a released statement.
The “Community Grid Alternative” would remodel I-81 to run through many of Syracuse’s eastern suburbs. The changes involved, to name a few, include rebuilding the connections between I-81 and I-481 at the southern and northern ends, adding a third line to both sides, adding a third lane to the northbound side, adding the third lane to the southbound side, and adding a new exit at the southernmost end of Business Loop 81 at East Glen Avenue. As of now, there are no changes planned for the state route portion of 481, which is further north.
Many have opposed this plan, including multiple U.S. Representatives, County Legislatures, the Central New York Area Labor Federation, the Central and Northern New York Building & Construction Trades Council, the Trucking Association of New York Central Region, as well as other union leaders. One organization, named SaveI81, has formed with the specific goal of publicly resisting the transformation, which they have appeared to do quite successfully given their large following.
Also leading the fight against the restoration of I-81 are business owners, including that of the Destiny Mall. The current route of Interstate 81 goes past the mall and is located on that stretch that would become BL 81. This slight adjustment has the potential to greatly impact attraction rates. Many other employers and organizations that have strategically established themselves near I-81 would too face a substantial loss of visitors and revenue if traffic were to be diverted away from the city.
The current I-81 traffic pattern also plays a key role in public health and safety. With the adjustments proposed by the plan, many have expressed concern that an increase in big trucks hauling large amounts of trash and hazardous waste would pass through their communities, directly impacting the health of its members. Also, emergency services rely on the quick and efficient travel of I-81 to access city hospitals. The redirection of I-81 would increase the amount of time it takes for emergency responders to reach their destinations, putting countless lives at risk in the process.
“I-81 serves as an economic backbone for the region, connecting commuters, tourists, patients and students with local businesses, attractions, healthcare facilities and higher education institutions, while also providing a direct route through and connecting the rest of the community with Downtown Syracuse. Tearing down I-81 and rerouting it around the city could have profoundly negative economic and public safety consequences while also clogging traffic in Syracuse, which today is known as a ‘20-minute city’ where you can get anywhere in a short period of time,” argued SaveI81 on their website.
While the topic has been exhausted in debate for the past few years, the current state of Interstate 81 continues to decline, affecting the lives of many surrounding members of the community. Eventually, change must be enforced, and those impacted will simply be expected to adjust to the modifications, for better or for worse.