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Anyone want a mile of used interstate? This week's Innovation Trail report on New York Now

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Syracuse is a divided city, in more ways than one. An elevated stretch of the interstate highway system known as I-81 runs north to south through the heart of the city, separating the resurging downtown from the booming University Hill. It’s also created a division in the community over what to do with it.

The 50-yeard old structure no longer meets federal regulations and needs to be updated.  

So, should Syracuse rebuild I81 or just tear it down?

“You will see how beautiful this street is. It’s a beautiful street. A lovely street, that you would love to walk along, that you would love to drive along, and you would love to have as part of your city.”

It’s not beautiful now, but Real Estate Developer and co-founder of the group ReThink 81 Robert Doucette, is out to convince you that Syracuse needs a boulevard in place of the stretch of I-81.

“If I could sit down with a suburbanite who really uses this highway to go in and out of work every day for instance, I could sit down and I could show them how they will not be affected. In fact, how they might be able to get to their job or their place of work, easier, quicker both coming in and coming out of Syracuse.”

There’s the essence of the escalating debate over what to do with the I81 viaduct. The final decision will rest with the State Department of Transportation and the Federal Government. However, members of the Onondaga community, like Marc Nicotra, Salina Town Supervisor, who mostly live in and around Syracuse are putting forth their own proposals.

“Save 81 has the access Syracuse plan which is a tunnel boulevard hybrid which is the best of both worlds which we think conveys the traffic in an efficient manner.”

The future of the I81 is pitting many of Syracuse’s urban dwellers against county residents who live in suburbs like Salina and use the viaduct to get in and out of the city. Many say what they need is a high volume traffic replacement.

“The tunnel goes underneath, boulevard on top. This plan actually, keeps most except for one street, all of the cross streets open. Something that most of the other plans close them all and this also uses the least amount of land and makes available the most amount of land after it’s all put in.”

There’s three main options on the table.

1) ReThink 81 want to tear down the viaduct and replace it with a pedestrian friendly boulevard. Then redirect highway traffic to other interstate roadways that ring the city.

2) Replace the segment with a newer, wider and straighter version of I81 that meet new government standards.

3) As Save 81 suggests, teardown the viaduct, build a boulevard in its footprint and dig an interstate tunnel underneath it.

Option 3 seems like the obvious compromise, but Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Moner says not so fast,

“Initially anyway what we’ve seen is that because of the water table, because of the buried utilities, the length that the tunnel would be and the volume of traffic, a tunnel is not optimal and so based on those facts what we’ve been told is that it would not be an optimal alternative.”

Mayor Stephanie Minor has been careful not to voice full support for any one of the plans but she is clear on one point, the viaduct needs to go.

“You cannot, or it’s very difficult to walk from downtown up to the university because of 81.”

And she says it’s actually holding the city back.

“It is not optimal to say the least. So it’s not optimal for economic growth, we want to have those institutions on University Hill continue to grow. We wanna have their intellectual energy meld with downtown, to help downtown and the economic development with small businesses there continue to grow.”

Ideally, she says the property around the viaduct can be repurposed  for private and public development and put back on the city tax rolls, obviously preferable to the dead zones and parking lots that exist today.

To get some perspective on how a stretch of highway has become so controversial, we caught up with Syracuse-dot-com and Post Standard government reporter Teri Weaver.

“I think people on all sides of the debate at this point, one of the things that they share is that nobody wants a decision that’s handed down by the federal or the state government and says sorry Syracuse, you have to live with this. So I think that in part is why you are seeing such a vigorous debate about what should happen with the highway.”

In the 50’’s and 60’s when I81 was built, it was part of an urban renewal project that knocked down a large portion of homes in the African-American community. At the same time, it allowed for economic growth and community development along the I-81 exits.

Weaver says the fission begins once people start talking about potentially rerouting traffic.

“People on many sides of this argument agree that the viaduct is old and embarrassing and probably should come down, but it doesn’t mean that everyone want to change the pathway of 81.”

Which brings us back to Salina Town Supervisor, Marc Nicotra.

“Our main concern is we want to maintain 81 as a through road through the city in whatever form that may end up being.”

While ReThink 81’s Robert Doucette proposes the opposite.

“Our plan or one of the things we’ve offered up is our existing roadways will take you in a route around Syracuse and bring you back to 81 with an addition of 8 minutes on your travel.”

The Syracuse Common Council unanimously voted to tear down the viaduct and replace it with a street-level boulevard, saying it would restore the city.

Opponents, insist this isn’t just a city issue but one that will ripple throughout the county and the region.

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