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Highway Takedown?
Syracuse studies fate of aging elevated interstate
Officials in Syracuse are considering demolishing a 1.5-mile stretch of I-81.
Courtesy OCL

Interstate 81 runs from Tennessee to Canada, passing through a roughly 1.5-mile elevated segment in downtown Syracuse, New York. This 50-year-old viaduct includes 124 bridge spans, many of which, though safe, are considered structurally deficient, and will eventually need to be replaced. To that end, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC) has begun a study process to determine options for the corridor, and some in downtown are making it clear that they want the structure replaced with a surface boulevard or tunnel.

Leading the fight, the Onondaga Citizens League (OCL), an advocacy group, has published a study calling for the elevated portion of the highway to be razed and remade as a street-level boulevard. They advocate for traffic to be rerouted along the I-481 ring road. The viaduct separates downtown from Syracuse University and the Upstate University Hospital, and the OCL believes a boulevard will allow downtown access while improving the pedestrian experience and boosting economic activity.

A rendering of a proposed boulevard that could replace the I-81 viaduct currently bisecting the city.
Courtesy OCL

An even more ambitious plan under discussion calls for a tunnel with parks built on top. “The relative merits of a tunnel versus a surface condition need to be studied further,” said Mark Robbins, dean of the Syracuse School of Architecture. Robbins and the university have been highly active in recent years in downtown redevelopment efforts. “One could live with an on-grade solution if it was dealt with properly in terms of crossings and landscape,” he said.

In August, SMTC launched a technical study as well as a public process to determine the viaduct’s fate. Called the “I-81 Challenge,” the study has “no predetermined outcome,” according to SMTC director James D’Agostino. Through a series of focus groups and public meetings over the next year, the organization plans to identify a range of options that will be correlated with technical data on traffic levels and road capacity, and from that the options will be further narrowed by 2011. After design development, environmental review, and further public involvement, a solution should be selected by 2013.

While elevated highways have been removed in larger cities, it is unusual for a city the size of Syracuse to consider such a plan. “Small cities are ripe for this kind of innovation,” Robbins said. “The transformation would be more legible here than it would be in a large city.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 09.23.2009.

Alan G. Brake