At a time when most cities across the country were driving to expand into the vastness of the American landscape to build and populate suburban developments, divisive highway systems through major cities were a natural fit. The quickest and most efficient means to access outlying areas were either through elevated highways or directly through major metropolitan areas.
In Syracuse, a relic of this era is the elevated portion of I-81 cutting the city in half. In 2009 a consortium was formed to include input from NYSDOT, SMTC, FHWA and the Public to study options and possible future of a 1.4 mile stretch of I-81 through the city that is in need of major repairs. The five scenarios that came out of these extensive studies were:
Rehabilitate (patch) the existing highway (findings = not feasible)
Reconstruct (new) the highway (findings = feasible)
Boulevard (findings = the most feasible)
Tunnel under the city (finding = not feasible)
Depress the highway (findings = not feasible)
The unbiased data of scientific evidence and all the input collected from the public, the engineers and visionaries found the solution to be to create an avenue, but local groups have gathered against this proven option. This is mainly due to fear. Will outlaying regions lose business due to slightly diverted traffic pattern? Will I have to give up an extra five minutes a day in my car to travel to my destination? What will Syracuse be without its great divide?
If we reach out to other cities similar to Syracuse to find out what helped them turn around, then we will learn that repairing the elevated portion of I-81 and retain its presence exactly as it now is not the optimal option. It will only continue the problem that has plagued the city for the past fifty years – it will keep the city divided. Furthermore, it will limit options for a friendly destination with walkable communities, bicycle friendly thoroughfares, multi-modal transportation initiatives and a green modern day infrastructure.
Take a look at the cities across the country and around that world that have been successful at driving traffic patterns through and around their centers and you’ll understand that change is good. In anewdallas.com, a blog dedicated to the removal of a deteriorating elevated highway in Dallas, Texas, Mr. Kennedy outlines cities that have successfully re-created their traffic patterns such as San Francisco, Portland and Milwaukee. Reinvigorated cities that have taken initiative to allow the creation of green zones and walkable boulevards have done so with great economic success and on a more humane scale.
The vast majority of planning and design officials including members of the American Institute of Architects who are educated in the history, policies and details of urban growth and regional planning believe that the best solution for Syracuse is to remove the eye soar that is I-81 through the city and create an avenue of densely populated housing, retail, commerce, entertainment and green walkable corridor in its place. We have a chance to build an avenue unlike anything else we know in Syracuse; one with all of the vibrant functions of a prosperous downtown.
A recent article in the Post Standard indicated that the support of our Senators and Assemblymen have turned away from the vision of a great city Boulevard in favor of keeping the elevated highway in place, even though overwhelming evidence shows it is not the best and highest use scenario. Have our politicians decided to limit our vision for a sustainable future? If we have learned anything, it’s that we have spent the past five years debating the options, and through public debate have learned that the best solution is to not continue to divide our downtown.
The elevated section of I-81 cutting through Syracuse should be taken down and in its place an active neighborhood can spring up, one that stiches the city back together after fifty years of division. To learn more about The I-81 Challenge go to www.thei81challenge.org.