The roundabout’s new spot

NYSDOT’s new proposal to place a highway offramp at Van Buren Street shows how their desire to maintain a high-speed highway through the City is incompatible with residents’ desire for safe, connected neighborhoods free of noise and air pollution.

The offramp—designed as a large roundabout—was originally planned for MLK Boulevard on the Southside. When NYSDOT unveiled those plans last summer, people immediately and rightly pointed out that it was too dangerous to funnel all of the highway’s traffic down to street level directly next to an elementary school. Connecting the highway to the street grid there would put kids at serious risk of injury, and the roundabout widened the entire roadway meaning that all of its noise and air pollution would be even closer to the school than I81 is now. Of the 7,000 comments NYSDOT received about the entire I81 plan, more than 1,000 were about the roundabout.

So NYSDOT has adjusted the I81 plan by moving the offramp 1000’ north to Van Buren Street. They’d dead end MLK Boulevard to keep highway traffic away from Dr. King Elementary’s students. That’d make the street safer, but it would also ‘cut off’ the Southside from the Grid. Moving the roundabout will allow NYSDOT to shift the highway lanes a couple dozen feet to the East. That will mitigate noise and air pollution at the school, but the new design may actually increase noise and air pollution at that point because cars will be driving a lot faster—and they’re more likely to be accelerating—than if they were passing through a roundabout.

At the offramp’s new location on Van Buren, it will cause many of the same problems that people feared at MLK Boulevard. Residential buildings flank Van Buren Street right where the roundabout will be, and the new offramp will be just as close to them as it would have been to Dr. King elementary. NYSDOT also intends to install a biking/walking path from Raynor to Van Buren to connect the Almond Street shared use path with University Hill, but it will be impossible to cross the roundabout there, so the offramp will sever that connection.

A better option would be to move the highway’s offramp further south to a place like the current Exit 17 just south of Brighton Avenue. End the limited-access highway there with a roundabout connecting to Salina St—as the current exit already does—and run a narrower 30 mph Almond Street from that point all the way through the Southside to Downtown. Almond Street would intersect with Brighton, Colvin, Oakwood, and Kennedy Street before reaching MLK Boulevard, so car traffic would have a lot of options to disperse through the City. Many fewer cars would pass by Dr. King Elementary, and any that did would travel past the school at much safer speeds. This would maintain connections between the Southside, Downtown, and University Hill, and it would allow people to walk from the Southside to Oakwood Cemetery—Syracuse’s largest green space.

But NYSDOT didn’t even consider this option. They dismissed the idea of moving the roundabout south by claiming that “traffic would speed up again by the time drivers reached Downtown.” But drivers would only speed up again if there were no signalized intersections and if the road was designed with highway-sized lanes that encourage fast driving all the way to Downtown—NYSDOT considered moving the roundabout south without ending the highway at the roundabout.

This is a bad sign for the project as a whole. The Grid has to prioritize movement within the City over high-speed car traffic traveling through the City. NYSDOT, incorrectly, seems to think they don’t have to choose between these two priorities. Asked to place more value on the health and safety of the students at Dr. King Elementary, they ignored the best option for those kids because it would slow down cars. You can see similarly misplaced priorities in the details of their design for Almond Street through Downtown which would encourage speeding and make it difficult to bike or walk between Downtown and the Eastside.

There are a thousand little details of the I-81 project that NYSDOT can tweak to either make Syracuse a safer, healthier, happier place or a place that’s easy to drive through. When public feedback forced them to move the highway’s southern offramp, they chose a new location that will make driving easier at the expense of local connectivity. We can’t let them keep making that same choice.