A different view of Interstate 81: Matt's Memo

Route 81 construction in 1966.

Transportation has always defined the next direction of growth and decay for Upstate New York. The rise and fall of the Erie Canal, the dependence and decline of travel by rail and the decisions of where to place the Thruway and Interstate 81 have all shaped Central New York.

Mobility and access has encouraged development, established profit centers and created new neighborhoods where none existed before.

Now that our community is considering what to do with the elevated viaduct that bisects downtown Syracuse we are facing another critical moment in our transporation history. The choices made will decide who makes money, what real estate has value and how people view the central hub of a community.

Over the last few years the I-81 Challenge has aspired to include all elements of public opinion in deciding the future course of the interstate highway. In 2009, The Onondaga Citizens League took the existing research, traffic dynamics and national urban trends and reached its own recommended option for 81.

The esteemed collection of talent concluded the top solution on the table was a rerouting of 81 to the existing 481 as it cuts up the eastern side of Onondaga County channeling through traffic around downtown. The existing elevated 81 would be brought down to a grade level boulevard. The corridor would allow a swift movement of traffic, but also created a renewed urban space that has spent half a century as a shadowy underpass and barrier between downtown and University Hill.

The artists renderings are appealing. The concept is alluring of catching up with communities like San Francisco, Seattle and Milwaukee in tearing down an outdated elevated highway. It could be the best option for reenergizing a struggling city core. But, this idea might leave areas directly north of Syracuse in the lurch.

A loss of the Interstate 81 designation through downtown runs the risk of cutting off Destiny USA from easy access from the south. It elevates the risk of hindering tractor trailer traffic engaging in commerce with plants and factories in the Salina and Liverpool areas. It could also cut significantly into room rentals at the tightly grouped collection of hotels at the 7th North Street corner where I-81 and the Thruway intersect.

Risking the business success of those areas should be a considerable factor in any decision. That point of view of looking from the northern suburbs back toward downtown was not considered in that Onondaga Citizens League report.

If you consider the transition that took place in the late 1950's and early 1960's you can see how this can go badly for businesses banking on highway traffic. Just take a ride up State Route 11 or travel east and west on Routes 5 or 20. You will notice the outdated or boarded up motels that once lived off weary travelers in the early days of the widespread use of cars.

There is a workable solution here with the elevated 81 question. First of all it's just over one mile that is under discussion. Maybe that one mile can retain the interstate designation and 481 can be labeled a spur route for those just passing through. Maybe 81 can tunnel under part of downtown to keep traffic flowing while also allowing growth at grade level. Maybe, as one business owner suggested, there could be a uniquely Syracuse bridge designed that would become a new landmark for the city while keeping traffic moving briskly.

The conversations must continue. It's likely not everyone will be happy with the final answer. Remember 50 years ago this was a city centered region. Those Salina hotels were farm fields. The elevated highway changed the city and created the suburbs. Time and perspective tells us we need to reinvigorate and reinvent the city as part of this transporation decision while doing our best to preserve business interests that have developed around our ability to move quickly around town.

Any questions or comment please forward them to I may even use some of your thoughts on NBC 3 News at 5:00, the 10:00 News on CW6 or on

The opinions expressed in this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and are not reflective of the views or opinions of Barrington Broadcasting, WSTM-NBC3, its management or employees.

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