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Horn: Tunnel construction best choice for I-81 renovation

Nearly five decades ago, Interstate 81 decimated Syracuse’s prosperity by doing what magicians do best: sawing it in half.

The 3.75-mile stretch of road that divides the city is nearing the end of its lifespan and a decision about its future will need to be made in 2017. Proposals for the roadway are already being laid out and a special presentation in Syracuse by New York state Transportation Commissioner Matt Driscoll is scheduled for May 20. But the key in discussions regarding the future of I-81 should be taking into account the damage already rendered to the city and its residents from previous construction.

The rationale behind the highway certainly made sense considering it was aimed at developing and growing the city. With the 1956 Federal Highway Act, Syracuse received a $500 million bond, according to The Atlantic, to craft the elevated roadway that would link downtown to outlying regions of the metropolitan area. The fact that this highway would bisect the city and demolish multiple neighborhoods — most of which were largely African-American — was ignored by planners.

There are three options for what to do with the aging highway in need of renovation moving forward: build a new viaduct system similar to the current highway, do away with the viaduct and route traffic through a boulevard across Syracuse or construct a tunnel underneath the city and tear down the elevated highway entirely.

But there is no stand-out choice and the reality is that none of the proposals will magically fix the decades of strife that the roadway has caused residents. In the vigorous debate about what would be best for transit and city residents, the tunnel represents the best hope for benefiting both.

The main problem is that the tunnel is a wild card. Numerous businesses rely on I-81 and its exits to keep them afloat. Their interests must be addressed regardless of what the city decides to do, but matters are even more complicated by the hefty price of the tunnel’s construction.

“Building the tunnel would be the best option, but the trouble is affording it,” said Donald Dutkowsky, an economics professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs. “It would maintain the straight shot through the city, but would open up the area above.”

The viaduct should come down to help remove the barriers that divide Syracuse, which is precisely why the tunnel would be the best solution: it’s an unobtrusive way to maintain traffic flow while utilizing the space above. If city planners could ensure that the tunnel is economically feasible and the businesses relying on I-81 are taken care of, this option is the obvious choice.

Rerouting onto a boulevard is what Michael Wasylenko, an economics professor and senior associate dean for Academics and Administration of SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs favors.

“The boulevard is the most sensible way to go. A lot of the truck traffic already uses this proposed route and it accomplished much of what the tunnel would do in terms of opening up the city,” said Wasylenko “Now is the time to invest in infrastructure due to the clear need and excellent buying conditions.”

While the other option of redirecting traffic onto other highways — as championed by the Rethinking I-81 group — is also plausible, the rebuilding of the current viaduct will likely be picked because it is safe and predictable. The state may just decide it’s better to deal with the devil it knows than the devil it doesn’t.

Looking back at the apathy shown by city councilors in the I-81 construction presents profound insight as to how Syracuse fell into its current position. Dutkowsky, a resident of the city, has observed the effects the highway has had firsthand.

“It was a psychological blow to the city. They removed a vibrant African-American neighborhood during a time that racism was a significant problem,” said Dutkowsky. “It effectively destroyed the city and contributed to many of the problems we see today.”

Between 1950 and 2010, the white population of Syracuse dropped more than 50 percent as many moved to surrounding suburbs thanks to the accessibility that the highway provided to downtown. Meanwhile the black population increased tenfold, forced to stay due to housing and employment discrimination. While schools slipped in quality and crime rates rose, residents became trapped in a cycle of poverty: The city was left to rot from the inside.

The psychological blow of having their neighborhoods destroyed is certainly still prevalent in the black community, which has been divided further by a stark contrast between the impoverished city and the affluent suburbs that surround it. As students, few of us even dare to venture off the hill SU sits on out of apprehension with the nearby districts.

While none of these proposals will fix the destruction caused to the city, the tunnel solution promises the best way to address the damage done. The dire situation that Syracuse is in should motivate the state to forge ahead with a plan that brings city residents out of the shadow of the overpass and give them a chance at a brighter future.

Theo Horn is a sophomore political science and public policy dual major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at tahorn@syr.edu.

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