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.

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