EDITORIAL: City park, or parking lot?

Syracuse contemplates a change with I-81

November 13, 2014

The interstate that drove right through people’s living rooms may soon resemble a green-speckled throw rug.

I-81 pierces through the center of Syracuse, N.Y. Before it was completed in 1969, thousands of homes, and a neighborhood or two, were either sacrificed or ripped apart—all in the name of interstate progress. Now I-81 could end up above somebody’s mantel, perhaps the one that belongs to Van Robinson. Robinson is president of the Syracuse Common Council, and wants the major freeway to be reduced to dust in order to open up more green space in the urban core.

This idea of extinguishing high-speed pavement in the U.S. has been growing over the last decade. Many could say Boston’s Big Dig, despite the chokehold it received from lawsuits due to faulty construction, breathed life into this movement. Now urban centers all over are looking at installing these downtown sanctuaries—areas that have lots of tree-hugging space and are more pedestrian friendly than the freeway system that, in effect, makes pedestrianism obsolete.

Robinson’s idea, however, has a hiccup or two. His plan is to have six lanes with traffic lights, trees and shops, and if necessary the city could carry a light-rail system. Save 81, a group made up of government leaders in surrounding suburbs, business owners and residents, believe the layout is a little light on reality. The switch would create an obscene amount of congestion. However, Robinson and many others in favor of this urban transformation believe the number of cars and trucks are actually reduced when city freeways are removed. They point to success stories in Boston, New York City (when the West Side Highway closed in 1973), Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee.

Those are the exceptions, and I believe three—Boston, Milwaukee and New York City—are surrounded by such a massive freeway system that eliminating one through the heart did not cause motorists to experience a massive coronary. Robinson seems to think the pretty landscape and traffic lights will put everyone into a joyride trance, and they would be numb to the complications.

Hey, I am a fan of the complete streets movement, and the trolley-car-like enhancements that go with it, but the situation still has to be the right one. The New York Department of Transportation seems determined to come up with a solution for Syracuse, and I-81 may indeed live to see other days. Among the other proposals are: a new, elevated freeway, a below-street-level highway system or a tunnel. If you prop up an interstate it only turns into an eye sore, and burying the route leads to massive project overruns (see Boston’s Big Dig) or one massive mess (see Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct). Sinking I-81 to where it sits just below Syracuse’s road network might be the best way to go. Why? Because if you want to make your way through a downtown area you better do it without the assistance of traffic lights, or you might as well just avoid the skyscraper epicenter all together. However, in Syracuse a roundabout approach would require the construction of more freeways, which apparently is out of the question.

The kicker in all of this is the fact that constructing the Robinson version would require more right-of-way and force more residents to move. Robinson wants to do something that will make his great-great-grandchildren stand up and say, “Hey, those were smart people.” After reading his proposal, Robinson is far from fulfilling his calling. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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