The Fate of Interstate 81

Interstate 81 is a major highway that, in the state of New York, stretches for 183.5 miles, crossing the counties of Jefferson, Oswego, Onondaga, Cortland and Broome. A very small segment of this interstate, a 1.4-mile-long viaduct in Syracuse, has recently come to prominent attention as it’s anticipated to reach the end of its life span in 2017.

At the final scoping meeting on what to do about the viaduct, held on June 26, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) unveiled to the public its “Draft Scoping Report, which whittled 16 project alternatives down to six. This six can be seen as variations of two basic options: built either a new viaduct or a surface street.

Along came U.S. Rep John Katko, R-24th Congressional District, who seems to have said to the NYSDOT, “Hey, not so fast, dudes!”

In a Feb. 6 letter Katko wrote: “The options have focused largely on either rebuilding the elevated highway, replacing the elevated highway with a street-level boulevard and rerouting Interstate 81 traffic around the City of Syracuse, burying the highway underground via a tunnel, or building a recessed highway with a ground level boulevard… I ask that the Federal Highway Administration and the NYSDOT ensure that a full range of options be included in the final scoping document for further study. Only by moving forward with a study on an array of alternatives representing each of the options listed above can we be confident of settling on a plan that is both minimally disruptive to the community and cost-effective. This is particularly important given the fact that any option not included in this final scoping document will be effectively thrown out of consideration permanently.”

In contrast, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has for the time being kept a more hands-off approach. “I have said that I will do everything I can to get very significant federal funding for I-81, but only after the community comes to a consensus as to what the design of the new I-81 should be. Once the community agrees on such a plan, I will roll up my sleeves, but I do not believe that I, as a federal official, should force any plan down the throats of the people of Syracuse and Central New York,” he said on Dec. 3.

But local opposition to a new viaduct has been mounting lately leading to the informal creation of an Axis of Resistance to it. The notion of an Axis of Resistance comes originally from the Middle East, where it is made up of three controversial characters: Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Bashar Hafez al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, and; Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah of the Lebanese Republic.

Since there were only three open slots for Syracuse’s own Axis of Resistance, the lucky winners were the most vocal critics of the new viaduct alternative: Van Robinson, President of the Syracuse Common Council; Sam Roberts, New YorkState Assemblyman, and; Sharon Owens, Executive Director of the SouthwestCommunity Center.

Needless to say, each axis resist different things.

In 2010 the Black History Preservation project produced the documentary titled “Syracuse’s 15th Ward and Beyond,” which was about the devastation brought to the 15th Ward by the construction of the old and narrower I-81 viaduct. Now, Robinson, Roberts and Owens appear to be trying to prevent the need to make a sequel, tentatively titled “Syracuse’s 9th Ward and Beyond,” to that documentary, as part of the 9th ward currently lies in the path of the projected new and wider I-81 viaduct,

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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