Cuomo Backpedals on Removing I-81 From Downtown Syracuse

Cuomo hinted last year that he favored highway removal, but in a state of the state address he backed away from the idea. Photo: Onondaga Citizens League
Cuomo hinted last year that he favored highway removal, but in a state of the state address he backed away from the idea. Photo: Onondaga Citizens League

The removal of I-81 from downtown Syracuse could be a transformative city-building project that heals neighborhoods and burnishes the legacy of Governor Andrew Cuomo. But Cuomo is waffling.

Since it was built in the 1950s, the elevated I-81 has stifled downtown and separated it from Syracuse University, creating what Mayor Stephanie Miner has called a “dead zone.” For years, local residents have called on the state to undo the damage by taking the highway down.

With the highway segment approaching the end of its design life, the New York State Department of Transportation weighed three options: rebuild the viaduct and widen it to conform with modern design standards, obliterating some buildings in the process; replace it with a tunnel; or tear it down and stitch neighborhoods together with a surface street grid, rerouting through-traffic around the city via I-481.

Last fall New York State DOT said the tunnel, with an estimated $3.1 billion price tag, was too expensive to build. The DOT announcement came a couple of months after Cuomo suggested he was in favor of removing the highway.

“That could be a transformative project that really jump-starts the entire region,” said Cuomo. “I-81 did a lot of damage — a classic planning blunder. Let’s build a road and bisect an entire community. That’s an idea, yeah, let me write it down.”

With the tunnel off the table, it seemed like Cuomo could only be referring to restoring the street grid. But last week, during his State of the State tour, Cuomo revived the tunnel proposal and introduced other scenarios.

From Politico:

“We want to make sure we look at it from all angles to make the best decision that we can, and we want to do some more study to make sure we have all the alternatives and the feasibility of these alternatives,” Cuomo said. “DOT has started their environmental review, and they’re going to be studying three options: a community grid options, a tunnel option — or a depressed highway option — and they will also be studying a combination of the community grid plus the tunnel and the community grid plus the depressed highway to see what is the most feasible and what does the most good and what is the most economic.”

Cuomo is wavering now, Politico reports, because Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco and suburban business interests, including the owners of the Destiny USA mega-mall, “see the flow of traffic along the highway as important.”

Cuomo’s new stance is especially alarming because he’s opening the door to a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. A sunken highway may not be as expensive as a tunnel, but it will still cost a lot more than removing I-81, and it will still saddle downtown with a river of traffic, noise, and pollution, even if a few bridges carry local streets across the trench.

Removing I-81 remains the only way to undo last century’s planning blunder, repair downtown Syracuse, and avoid saddling the state with a multi-billion dollar highway project.

  • Walter Crunch

    Take it down. Bring back health to the region

  • Christopher Hollander

    One only needs to travel 90 miles down I-90 to see what another Upstate city is doing with their depressed highway. You’ll see that it’s almost only a memory.

  • Griff

    This has been a purely political motivated movement .
    Politicians from up high using their power to create this
    non issue. The bridge has served this community with out
    standing service. And has at its off ramps the entire assets
    of the city. A college stadium, county convention center, a
    host of major hospitals, The SU college, and the heart of the city.

    The double decked transportation allows unimpeded movement
    beneath with streets running parallel under it.
    This has been an asset to the city and allowing the masses to
    come in in mass and sample the city. Or work its
    This episode was not a public driven event.
    But a relentless political bull dogging .
    The counter issues being the bridge looks bad.
    The only option that would even maintain a decent level
    of services that match the bridge’s function would be the tunnel.
    The others would either cut the city in half and create several
    mini bridges that allow access across the city. Or reroute and
    destroy the ease of access to the cities center and points
    along its birth.

    This boondoggle is a democratic lead initiative that cares
    not how much money it will cost. The disruption of the cities streets
    and ease of movement for its visitors or community workers.
    And the expenses and ridiculous notion of the cost of putting
    a tunnel where there is no need.

    The senseless destruction of a transportation system .
    That serves this community with the highest degree of unimpeded
    movement. Is what can be expected by the cities current officials.
    And if backed by the state a disappointing view of its leadership.

  • neroden

    The bridge is a disaster. It is, of course, falling down now. It is unsafe to cross under it on foot, and it’s a really nasty environment on either side.

    A tunnel would cost more than Syracuse can afford.

    Just rip it out. People can drive on the surface streets; I already do, since the bridge is unsafe now.

  • Griff

    If the bridge was unsafe they would have to shut it down.
    Your opinion is pretty much shut down by professional
    When 81 was temporary shut down the north side could not
    handle the load. Four lanes of solid traffic on the cities streets
    is a joke. And the papers carried the story of how awful it
    was for drivers and business.
    The waste of gas and wear and tear on your vehicle is
    your choice. You don’t need to inflict the waste and nonsense
    on the tens of thousands that need to get to work and school.
    The ability to evacuate masses in the event of a emergency
    would be a cluster flub with the city streets as a only means.
    Lets hope that the Governor stands up and plays the
    adult. And not spend another 1.5 billion on a hole where
    one is not needed.
    The political gaming is not what this state or city needs.

  • Matthew S.

    Your comment shows zero understanding of urban planning. Zero. Cities are for people to live in. Tear down a single mile of downtown expressway and the neighborhood will flourish and the commuters will survive. This is a potential economic boon to a city that badly needs it. Dumb planning wrecked many cities. This is a chance to undo a little of the damage. Tear down I-81.

  • Matthew S.

    What did they do in Rochester?


    Whatever happened to the canard of “induced demand”, i.e. If the road is there, people will come? Another utopian falsehood that doesn’t seem to be working.
    When Syracuse was a major industrial hub, the road was full during rush hour. I know, I once lived nearby. Then Carrier outsourced its manufacturing to Mexico (note the Carrier Dome in Syracuse), other companies followed and the city died. Make Syracuse impossible to get to or through for commuters, especially those from further south, Syracuse will never recover.

  • Matthew S.

    Dude, you’re a genius. You have urban planning all figured out. Today you’re a part-time clerk at a gym, but I see great things in your future. Like maybe assistant manager. Dare to dream!


    What a pinhead.


    Don’t worry about Matthew S (name withheld). He got an Associate’s degree at Acme Urban Planning Trade School and thinks he’s Frederick Law Olmsted. No common sense or knowledge of what makes commercial interests thrive. And without commercial interests (i.e. jobs), there are no sustainable neighborhoods.


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