Tag Archives: I81

How tearing down I-81 will reduce traffic

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement put a lot of effort into explaining exactly how many minutes it would take to drive a car between different points in the County depending on what NYSDOT ultimately decides to do with the I-81 viaduct. NYSDOT estimates, for instance, that in 2056 during the morning rush it’ll take 27 minutes to get from Cicero to Lafayette if they leave the viaduct as it is, 23 minutes if they build a brand new viaduct, and 27 minutes if they build the Community Grid.

But the I-81 project’s biggest transportation impact won’t have anything to do with how long it takes to drive a car between Cicero and Lafayette. Instead, the I-81 project is going to decrease the number of car trips between such far flung locations and replace them with much shorter carless trips by changing the geography of where people can live in Onondaga County.

In general, if you were to walk from the edge of the Syracuse metropolitan area to its center at Clinton Square, each area you passed through would be more densely populated than the one you saw last. Onondaga County is more densely populated than predominantly rural Madison and Oswego Counties. Onondaga County’s inner ring suburbs are more densely populated than its newly built exurbs. The City’s neighborhoods are more densely populated than most all of its suburbs. The City’s older closer-in neighborhoods are more densely populated than the more recently developed neighborhoods at its edge.

And this makes a good deal of sense because it’s good to live near the center of things, so that’s where lots of people choose to live. It’s good to have ready access to hospitals and schools and places to work and places to socialize and lots of people to socialize with. Syracuse is the only place in all of Central New York where a person could step out their front door and be within walking distance of 50,000 jobs.

But once you reached the very center of the city, this pattern of increasing population density would all of a sudden reverse. Downtown Syracuse and the area that immediately surrounds it is significantly less densely populated than neighborhoods like the Northside and the Southside.

This is a real paradox, because the City’s center is one of the best places to live in order to enjoy the benefits that cities bring—being near stuff—and it’s obvious that people want to live in this area since the few that are pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

But very much of the very middle of Syracuse is basically barren because of I-81. Cars promised to provide ready access to everything Syracuse had to offer—the jobs, the institutions, the community—without actually having to live near any of it. All they required was a highway and a parking spot. Syracuse’s leaders happily got to work demolishing housing, schools, businesses, and churches to make space for I-81, its arterial feeders, and the parking lots that surround and sustain them.

All that pavement creates a huge dead zone around the center of town that hurts Syracuse in two ways. First, it prevents people from living in places where people absolutely want to live. Second, it cuts City neighborhoods off from the opportunities available in the City’s center. 

People want to live near the center of town, but they can’t because the highway takes up too much space. The highway makes it so that the most desirable areas to live instead are on the exurban fringe. So people move out to the exurban fringe, but everybody’s moving to a different part of that fringe whether it’s Camillus or Lysander or Clay or Manlius. The community gets dispersed over an enormous area, and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they regularly need to get from Cicero to Lafayette for book club or work or their kid’s soccer game.

Tearing down the I-81 viaduct is a huge step towards fixing this transportation failure. The viaduct covers 18 acres of land, and tearing it down will free up a lot of space where people could find a good place to live. It will also make a lot of currently vacant land much more suitable for housing because there won’t be a big ugly polluting noisy highway right nearby anymore.

With more people living closer together, more of the places they need to go and the things they need to do will be located in a smaller area, so the post office and the pharmacy will be a 5 minute walk from home rather than a 5 minute car ride. As more people move to the center of town, there will be less need for all that parking and all those arterials, and there will be even more room for more people.

This trend is already underway. The five census tracts that surround the I-81 viaduct grew by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The people who accounted for that growth are not going to have to drive nearly as often or nearly as far as they would if they had instead moved to someplace like Fabius. When NYSDOT tears down the viaduct and replaces it with the Grid, they will make it more possible for more people to live similarly. That’s going to be the Grid’s biggest transportation impact.

The price of delay

Now that it’s clear that I-81 is coming down, the viaduct’s supporters have adopted a new tactic: delay. They’re done trying to influence the final outcome of the project—compare the in-depth 2-year tunnel analysis to the half-assed Skyway proposal—and they are instead trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The Mall has hired a lawyer who argues NYSDOT needs to redo all of its economic analyses with newer data. Busybodies from Skaneateles want additional traffic studies for locations 50 miles away from the highway. Congressman John Katko just managed to get NYSDOT to extend the comment period by another 30 days. Expect to see more of this nonsense as we take the final steps towards tearing down the viaduct.

None of these delaying tactics will change the project’s ultimate outcome. The Grid is so obviously the correct choice from an environmental, safety, economic, social justice, cost, and transportation perspective. In the long run, the viaduct will come down, and Syracuse will be better off for it.

But we don’t live in the long run. We live here now, and the interested parties have a lot to gain or lose by dragging this decision out as long as possible.

Take the Delayer-in-Chief, former State Senator John DeFrancisco. He was able to muck up the NEPA process for years. In that time he moved his home and business to the suburbs, and he retired from public life so he no longer needs campaign contributions from viaduct supporters. He couldn’t actually convince NYSDOT to build a tunnel or a new viaduct, but he managed to keep the current viaduct up until it didn’t matter to him, personally, anymore.

Or look at the mall. The long run doesn’t matter to them because structural changes to the world economy is killing their business anyway. But in the short run they sincerely believe they’ll make more money with the viaduct than without it. From that perspective, it’s in their financial interest to keep the viaduct up as long as possible. A 13-year process is better than a 5-year process—even if the viaduct comes down at the end either way—because it means 8 more years of marginally higher profits.

But just as these bad actors benefit from delay, stretching out this process hurts Syracuse. Tearing down the viaduct and building the grid is going to give a lot of people a recession-proof paycheck—it would have been great for that work to have already started before the pandemic caused a recession last year.

The pandemic also caused a huge increase in demand for housing in the Syracuse metro area. Much of that demand matched with supply in the exurbs—places like Clay, Lysander, and Manlius—and furthered sprawl and inter-municipal inequality. If the viaduct had already come down, new housing in the City’s center could have soaked up some of that new demand and made Syracuse a more sustainable, more equitable place.

Most importantly, every single day, the viaduct makes life worse for the people who have to live near it. Noise and air pollution cause chronic illness along the highway’s path, and every day that John DeFrancisco, John Katko, and the Mall delayed construction was another day that kids breathed in exhaust and fell asleep to the sound of speeding cars.

The viaduct will come down. Syracuse will be safer, cleaner, more just, and more pleasant for it. But there are people who want to delay that better future off as long as possible. They talk about caution and making every voice heard and making sure we get this right. But they’re really just interested in running out the clock until they retire, until their business fails, until they move. We don’t need to humor their cynicism for another year.

False hope for the viaduct

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli just wrote an op-ed arguing that we can’t move forward with the I-81 project until there’s consensus. This is wrong, and we need to move past the false hope that the I-81 project can possibly please everybody.

The Assemblymember pointed to widespread criticism of the recently release Draft Environmental Impact Statement as evidence that NYSDOT should not move forward with the Grid. People living in Pioneer Homes deserve better mitigation during the construction period; car drivers may have to stop at red lights; fewer people may drive directly past the Mall; car exhaust may cause students at Dr. King Elementary to develop chronic respiratory illness. 

From the Assemblymember’s perspective, these criticisms all point to his preferred outcome for this project: the status quo.

“We can have connectivity within the city, including walking and bike trails, and continue to keep the city connected to its suburbs and the rest of the region. These are not mutually exclusive… What we need is a community grid in conjunction with a rebuilt viaduct, tunnel, or new bridge to keep traffic flowing through Syracuse.”

The Assemblymember then implies that this outcome—one which has been opposed by the City’s elected leadership for a decade—would work for everybody:

“I do not believe that a consensus for this project has ever been reached by the city, suburbs and outlying towns in our region. Given the amount of federal monies available, why don’t we have an option that satisfies everyone’s needs?”

There is no option that can possibly meet everyone’s “needs,” and to see why all you have to do is read through the Assemblymember’s list of concerns. A new viaduct would certainly save car drivers from the terror of traffic lights, but it would also increase air pollution at Dr. King Elementary. A tunnel (it’s okay, you can laugh) would definitely keep cars moving past the Mall, but the interchange with 690 would be even bigger than what we have today, and it would create a blackhole in the middle of town where no one would ever have cause to walk or bike.

Assemblyman Magnarelli is wrong: competing interests want mutually exclusive things out of this project. There is no way to reconcile all of the concerns that different members of different communities have expressed about NYSDOT’s current plan for I-81.

In fact, the DEIS has received so much criticism because it is a misguided attempt to find a “consensus” solution. The Grid should resemble a normal city street in order to accommodate local street life while discouraging through traffic from bringing air pollution, noise pollution, and traffic violence into the City. Instead, NYSDOT is offering something no one wants—the West Street Arterial but bigger—in order to appease powerful people like the Assemblymember who have demanded that the Grid accommodate high-speed high-volume car traffic.

There is no possible solution that can please both the Mall and Dr. King Elementary’s community. They simply want mutually exclusive outcomes from the I-81 project. That’s a hard truth because it requires our leaders to make a decision that will be unpopular with some people, but it’s the way things are. Anybody who continues to nurture this false hope—that if we just had more time, if we just thought a little harder about it, if we just spent more money, then everybody could be happy—is ignoring reality.

The Grid and Bus Rapid Transit

The I-81 project can and should help build a Bus Rapid Transit system in Syracuse. BRT will make public transportation much more useful for current riders, it will attract many new riders, and it will reduce traffic congestion and improve traffic safety for everybody who uses Syracuse’s streets.

In the DEIS, NYSDOT lists “maintain[ing] access to existing local bus service and enhanc[ing] transit amenities within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse,” as one of the I-81 project’s five objectives. These transit amenities “could include bus stops and shelters, bus turnouts, and layover and turnaround places.”

NYSDOT elaborates:

“Apart from the Downtown transit hub, Centro has few amenities for its customers. Most stops have a sign, but no seating, lighting, or shelters. Syracuse has a temperate climate with cold winters and hot summers, and the city sees substantial snowfall each year. Lacking any amenities, customers must wait for buses outdoors without the protection of shelters. Where practical, enhanced amenities for riders could provide a better experience for transit customers and facilitate their use of existing transit services.”

This is good. It is ridiculous that the snowiest big city in the nation asks its bus riders to stand in the street to catch the bus in the winter. It is ridiculous that a town where the sun sets as early as 4:30 pm doesn’t provide adequate lighting at its bus stops.

But even though better amenities are good, what we really need is better service. Even the most comfortable bus shelter won’t do much if riders have to wait an hour for the bus to show up.

Luckily, Uplift Syracuse just released a new report—“Better Bus Service”—that shows how investing in infrastructure like better bus stops can make more frequent service more possible by speeding up buses and reducing the annual operating cost of providing improved service.

Basically, faster buses cost less to run than slower buses because they allow a single operator to complete more runs in a single shift. Uplift Syracuse estimates that if bus speeds on Centro’s best performing corridors could be increased from roughly 10 mph to 15 mph, then Syracuse could have an 8-line, 28-mile, citywide network of fast and frequent rapid transit service for roughly $8 million per year—that’s significantly cheaper than Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s estimate that running a network of just half this size would cost $8.3 million annually.

NYSDOT is willing to build new transit infrastructure anywhere in the I-81 project area shaded red on the map above. This area overlaps with much of the central portion of Uplift’s proposed BRT system. Here are the specific projects NYSDOT should build in order to advance Bus Rapid Transit in Syracuse:

New Stations

potential BRT stations located in the I-81 project area

BRT stations are significantly different from the bus stops Syracuse knows now. They are more than just a place to wait—BRT stations actually increase average bus speeds by minimizing the amount of time that it takes for riders to board and alight from the bus.

BRT stations do this in two ways. First, they are raised up above the sidewalk to sit even with the bus floor. That makes it easier for everybody to get on and off the bus, and it’s especially important for people who use mobility devices. Second, they allow riders to pre-pay their fare while waiting for the bus to arrive. This makes boarding much faster because it eliminates the line at the farebox.

And BRT stations do also have the amenities that every bus station really should have: shelter from the snow, rain, and sun, a nice place to sit, lighting, and real-time information about when the next bus will arrive.

the park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets will host a major BRT transfer station

Several potential BRT stations are located within the I-81 project area. One of the most important is the small park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets. That’s where two BRT lines will converge, and a station on that park would allow riders to transfer between those lines without the need to cross the street.

Other potential BRT stations are on Fayette near Crouse and Irving, on State Street at Willow, on Adams at McBride, and at the corner of Adams and Irving. Centro needs to finalize its plans for where to locate new stations, and then NYSDOT needs to build the ones that will be in the I-81 project area.

Transit Lanes

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area

Transit Lanes speed service by letting buses bypass traffic congestion. Syracuse doesn’t have much traffic congestion so transit lanes probably won’t be necessary across most of the City, but Downtown streets do sometimes back up during rush hour. Happily, these same streets are significantly wider than they really need to be, so there’s plenty of room to give BRT buses their own space.

Major streets in the I-81 project area that might also have BRT service are Adams, State, James, Willow, and Salina. In all cases, the I-81 project area does not extend far enough to cover the entire portion of these streets that would need transit lanes, so it will be up to City Hall to complete the work of extending those lanes along State from Erie Boulevard to Harrison Street, say, or along Adams from the Hub to Irving.

These transit lanes will ensure that buses keep their schedules no matter the traffic Downtown, and that will make for faster, cheaper BRT service.

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area in dark blue with those located outside the project area in light blue

All of these minor transit infrastructure proposals are within the I-81 project area, all would meet one of the five objectives that NYSDOT has set for this project, and all would move Syracuse closer to getting the public transit system that we need and deserve. Let’s make them part of the final I-81 project.

You can let NYSDOT hear about it at this link: I-81 comment form

The Grid and the Northside

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed how NYSDOT’s plans to tear down the viaduct will change Downtown and the Southside, but that document also contained some very good plans for the Northside. By improving access to one highway onramp and removing several others, NYSDOT will make the Northside’s streets safer.

Pearl Street is a major onramp to 81 northbound, and it will become even more important once the Grid gets built. But right now, it’s not very easy to get to Pearl Street. A lot of traffic from Downtown comes up State Streets, crosses James, takes a left onto Willow, and then a quick right onto Pearl and the highway.

To accommodate all those highway-bound cars, traffic engineers turned State Street into a 5-lane 60-foot-wide racetrack between Fayette and Willow. It’s an unpleasant place to walk, a deadly place to bike, and a terrible place to run any kind of street-facing business besides a gas station (there are two on this short ⅓ mile stretch of de facto highway).

When NYSDOT tears down 81, they’re also going to extend Pearl Street two blocks south to Erie Boulevard. Then, car traffic from Downtown to 81 northbound will take Erie to Pearl to the highway, significantly reducing the number of cars on North State Street.

NYSDOT is also putting a fully protected bike lane on State Street from Water Street to James. This will provide a direct connection between the Empire State Trail and one of the flattest routes across the Northside.

The intersection of State, Salina, and Butternut Streets is a major gateway to the Northside, but it’s seen better days. There are some good local businesses hanging on, but many storefronts are vacant and so are a lot of the upper floors of the buildings surrounding the triangular intersection.

Again, a major problem is a nearby highway onramp that attracts too much car traffic. Actually, there are two: the onramp that comes off the Butternut Street bridge and the State Street onramp a block north of that. These two getaway points for suburban commuters draw thousands of cars from Downtown through this square, and they fill what should be a pleasant public space with noise and exhaust.

NYSDOT’s Grid plan will eliminate those two highway onramps. There’s just no need for them with an improved onramp at Pearl Street. NYSDOT also plans to reconstruct the Butternut Street bridge to make it narrower and safer, and they want to give away the land at the northwest corner of State and Butternut that’s currently being wasted with parking and an onramp.

With all those cars gone, new space for a new building that can house people and help ‘enclose’ the square, and a planned future BRT station, this intersection should become a major focal point linking the Northside to Downtown.

NYSDOT will do similar good work further north by removing highway exits at Spencer and Basin Streets. These ramps bring high-speed traffic to neighborhood streets, and they are a barrier between neighborhoods.

Take the Spencer/Catawba exit. There are three brand new Franklin Square apartment buildings within a walking distance of the North Salina Street business district, but the only way to get between the two neighborhoods is the Spencer Street bridge. Because a highway offramp dumps cars travelling 60 mph off right at that bridge, it’s not a very nice place to walk, and very few people do. Removing the Spencer Street offramp will make it much easier for people to walk the short distance between the Northside and Franklin Square, and that will be better for both neighborhoods.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Community Grid will remove 9 of I81’s off and onramps between Hiawatha Boulevard and I690. That will significantly reduce high-speed traffic on the Northside’s local streets, it will make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant, and it will better connect neighborhoods currently divided by the highway.

Getting the Grid’s details right

NYSDOT’s new I81 project report lays out a good framework to undo the damage that car-only transportation planning has done to Syracuse. But although the overall vision of the Grid is good, NYSDOT needs to change some significant details of the Grid’s design in order for this project to be as effective as possible.

When you get into the nitty gritty of the design drawings, there are some troubling details. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says that travel lanes on city streets should be 10’ wide—maybe 11’ if it’s a major trucking or transit route — but NYSDOT plans to build Almond Street with four 12’ wide travel lanes. That’s the standard for highways, and it’s the same lane width that NYSDOT plans to use for the grade-separated portions of 81.

NACTO also says that curb radii—a measure of how sharply a car has to turn at an intersection and a key determinant of pedestrian safety—should be no more than 15’ in order to make crosswalks safe for people on foot. NYSDOT plans for 15’ curb radii on many local streets, but on Almond most intersections will have curb radii of between 20’ and 35’, and the intersection of Almond and Erie Boulevard will have a mammoth 65’ curb radius.

NYSDOT also intends to speed traffic on Almond by leaving out crosswalks for existing intersecting streets. People on foot and bike won’t be able to cross Almond Street at either Madison or Monroe Streets even though NYCLU specifically called for a crosswalk at Monroe, and even though Madison is a prime candidate for a neighborhood greenway connecting Downtown, University Hill, and Westcott.

These are design standards for moving cars at very high speeds with little consideration for people who might travel the street by foot or bike. In fact, NYSDOT predicts that Level of Service—“a qualitative measure used to describe the experience of a user on an urban street segment”—will be significantly worse for pedestrians and bicyclists than it will for car drivers. Levels of Service for cars on Almond Street range between grades of A, B, and C, while people using the sidewalks and bike lanes get service grades of C and D.

NYSDOT also predicts that their design could actually increase the number of cars on local streets by bringing more interstate through-traffic into Downtown:

“Businesses on BL 81 south of I-690 would experience an increase in pass-by potential customers, which could marginally benefit sales. Furthermore, the business loop designation may attract through travelers on I-81 looking for convenience retail and restaurant uses.”

NYSDOT helpfully lists the types of businesses that would likely benefit from this added traffic and might want to set up shop along Almond Street: “gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food.”

The design standards NYSDOT is proposing—12’ lanes, large curb radii, and limited access from local streets—are identical to those that define the West Street arterial between Fayette and Onondaga Streets. That hostile highway is a significant barrier between Downtown and the Near Westside, and we shouldn’t be replicating its failure along Almond Street.

It’s possible to make a very wide street that actually fits in a city and knits neighborhoods together, one that’s pleasant to walk or bike along, one that will support small-scale retail and attract quality housing.

Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, for instance, is a really nice street even though it carries three lanes of traffic in each direction. It’s lined by apartment blocks and businesses that cater to the neighborhood—not interstate through traffic. Crucially, Eastern Parkway has narrow travel lanes (10’), many intersections, and sharp corners at those intersections to encourage drivers to slow down when they turn through the many crosswalks.

This is the kind of street we should be building in the center of Syracuse—not another grade-level high-speed arterial. NYSDOT is accepting comments on their most recent design. Let them know.

How cars killed Syracuse

81’s construction was a cataclysmic event in Syracuse’s history. Building the highway—and 690 soon after—meant tearing down dozens of city blocks and demolishing hundreds of homes. But although that event stands out for the scale of its destruction, it was neither the beginning nor the end of Syracuse’s campaign to demolish itself. Aerial images from 1938, 1951, 1966, and 2021 show how the area now known as Downtown has been gradually turned to asphalt in order to make room for cars over the course of decades. As NYSDOT prepares to remove the I81 viaduct from Downtown, they must account for the broader damage done to Syracuse by all of these cars.

To see some of the highways’ most direct devastation, look at the corners of Pearl and Canal Streets. That intersection used to be the northern edge of Downtown—now it doesn’t even exist. The three city blocks that surrounded it are completely covered by the 81/690 interchange.

But even through the interchange wouldn’t destroy these blocks until the 1960’s, the car had already started degrading the area by 1951. Compare the image from that year (second in the series) to the one from 1938 (first in the series). A handful of buildings and some green space from the 1938 image are gone just 13 years later, all replaced by surface parking lots.

The highways accelerated this degradation elsewhere in the City. 81 did less direct damage around Forman Park, but it preceded a similar scale of destruction by creating an enormous need for car storage that Syracuse supplied by demolishing dozens families’ homes.

Two church buildings survived this demolition derby, but their congregations didn’t. According to the logic of the day, I-81 should have made AME Zion and First Christian Scientist more accessible (by car) than ever, but destroying their neighborhood meant emptying the church buildings. Both congregations are still active in 2021, but they have had to build new houses of worship closer to their congregants’ new neighborhoods.

A little further south, Syracuse has tried to create institutions that can withstand the destruction of the surrounding neighborhood. The War Memorial, the Everson Museum, and the OnCenter are all supposed to capitalize on the highways by drawing people from the entire region. No one needs to live near these attractions because the car makes them accessible from any home in the County. There just needs to be enough space to store everybody’s car once they get Downtown, and Syracuse found that space by demolishing people’s homes (specifically, Black people’s homes).

City Hall cleared much of this land at the same time NYSDOT was building 81, but the War Memorial (and its parking lot) came before any of that wholesale destruction, and the OnCenter (and its parking garage) came much later.

Even places not directly affected by the highway construction program have seen this same pattern of car-driven demolition. The area around City Hall has been losing buildings—and even whole streets—to car storage since the 1920’s. The small park in front of City Hall is now car storage. So is the Yates Hotel and most of what used to be Genesee Street between Montgomery and State. All of this happened between 1961 and 2021, after the construction of the highways.


The highways aided, abetted, and accelerated Syracuse’s destruction, but they did not cause it. The City has been destroying itself ever since the first people bought cars, moved out of town, and demanded that Syracuse remain completely accessible to them.

So it’s been alarming to watch NYSDOT justify the Grid by pointing out how little it will affect driving conditions for suburban commuters, or to see their plans for replacing the West Street interchange with parking lots. Just removing the highway (or 1.1 miles of it) won’t fix the basic problem. We also have to make it so that people don’t feel the need to bring (and store) their cars Downtown.

That means deconstructing the system of arterial streets that feed the highways. It means building the grid so that it can’t carry the same amount of traffic that runs over the viaduct today. It means making it safe, easy, and pleasant to bike or bus across the City. It means building new housing on all of those parking lots so that more people can live in the City Center and get around it on foot.

Syracuse is a city, and cities are for people. For 90 years, our City’s leaders have been trying to replace people with cars, and they’ve done a pretty thorough job of it. The 81 project is a real chance to change course, but we have to make sure that NYSDOT understands that opportunity and acts on it. When they release their final Environmental Impact Statement this summer, watch to make sure that it goes beyond just removing the viaduct and puts Syracuse on a path to rebuild itself.

The highways are walls

81, 690, and the West Street Arterial are designed to make Downtown more accessible from the suburbs, but they’re also designed to make Downtown less accessible to city residents.

They do this in two ways. The first is to cut off local streets that connect adjacent neighborhoods. 81—and the urban renewal projects that went with it—closed Jefferson, Cedar, Madison, Montgomery, and McBride Streets. The interchange with 690 closed Oswego Boulevard and Pearl and Canal Streets. The West Street Arterial closed Belden Avenue and Walton Street, and it severed Marcellus, Otisco, and Tully Streets from their connection to Downtown too.

The second is to funnel so much vehicular traffic onto the remaining streets that they become unusable to anybody not in a car. This is the state of Harrison and Adams most obviously, but it’s also a problem on Fayette, Genesee, and Erie Boulevard. A car driver approaching from the East used to have 11 different options for entering Downtown—now there are only 6. These remaining swollen streets are awful to walk along, difficult to cross, and impossible to bike in, so they crowd out local foot traffic between adjacent neighborhoods.

Any plan to fix that damage has to do more than just remove the highway—it also has to break down the barriers that segregate neighborhoods by establishing new connections between them.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Grid does this a little bit. It reopens streets like Pearl and Oswego Boulevard,  expands the Creekwalk, adds a few blocks of bike lanes, and shortens crosswalks at major intersections.

But those are just starts. Syracuse needs a more comprehensive plan to reconnect Downtown to the City. That will mean adding low-traffic pedestrian-friendly connections—like a bridge over Onondaga Creek at Fabius or opening footpaths through Presidential Plaza. It will mean narrowing West and Adams so that people can walk across them safely. It will mean building a functional public transportation system.

It should not be easier, cheaper, and more convenient for a person from Van Buren to drive Downtown than it is for someone from Park Avenue to walk Downtown. It shouldn’t be that way for no other reason than that Van Buren is 10 miles from Clinton Square while Park Avenue is less than a mile away. We’ve successfully warped the County’s geography so that 10 miles seems like less than 1, but we did it by building a wall between Downtown and the surrounding City neighborhoods. It’s time to tear that wall down and reestablish the City’s connection to its center.

We Shouldn’t Widen Highways in the Suburbs Either

This week it came out that NYSDOT wants to take land away from people living in Cicero and the outskirts Syracuse in order to widen 481 as part of the plan to get the viaduct out of Downtown.

That’s bad. Highways are loud, they’re ugly, and they blacken people’s lungs. People who live next to the highway out in Cicero know this. That’s why a lot of them plant a thicket trees at their property’s edge to shelter their homes from the highway. Now that’s the very land where NYSDOT wants to build a bunch of drainage ditches so that it can make the highway even wider and more noxious.

It’s not so different from NYSDOT’s original plans to rebuild the viaduct Downtown. They were going to make it wider and straighter so that more cars could fit on it and so they could make even more noise. NYSDOT was going to knock over dozens of buildings and put the highway even closer to so many people’s homes.

For what? To double down on 1965’s idea of the future? To attract more cars, accidents, and congestion? We don’t need any of that. We don’t need it in the middle of Syracuse, which is why we’re getting rid of the viaduct there. We also do not need it in Cicero, which is why we shouldn’t be widening the highway out there.

An Ugly Idea

Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”

When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.

What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.

It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.