If Syracuse is famous for one thing, it’s being one of the most segregated cities in America, suffering from “hyper-segregation” that has made it one of the “worst cities for black Americans” to live. Surprisingly, a highway is largely to blame.

Syracuse’s Interstate 81 has been a problem for years. Ever since it was implemented, it’s been a physical and literal dividing line between black and white residents. The highway is also old and in need of redesign. Recognizing the need that these problems have created, the local government has been debating for some years over what to do with it.

Currently, three options are on the table: Rebuild the aging viaduct, build a tunnel through the area, or replace the highway with a “community grid”. Of the three, the community grid is the only option that promises to invest in Syracuse and work towards counteracting the history of segregation.

Syracuse’s Choices

The viaduct plan is straightforward: the highway needs replacing, so rebuild it. The new viaduct would feature wider lanes, a wider shoulder, and renovations to Almond Street.

The tunnel takes a different approach. Instead of reconstructing the overpass, the tunnel would streamline traffic through downtown areas without delaying commutes. It would carve a path underneath the city’s streets and drop commuters off near high-volume business districts.

The community grid option offers a simplistic and efficient solution for the problem: eliminate the need for the highway by using existing city streets. In this plan, Almond Street would be renovated with the addition of bicycle lanes, “pedestrian amenities” and “aesthetic treatments”.

Interstate 81’s Segregation

To understand the reason that this decision matters, one must understand the space that Interstate 81 occupies in the history of Syracuse.

When Interstate 81 was first constructed, it involved property acquisition and resident relocation that disproportionately affected the poor and minority citizens of Syracuse.

The Atlantic’s article “How to Decimate a City” explored the problem most subtly. The article delves deep into the history of Syracuse and of the construction of the highway to explain the original plans as a misguided attempt to turn the city of Syracuse into an “economic powerhouse”. It was not a success.

Syracuse now boasts high poverty rates, disturbing crime trends, and very visible distinctions of wealth and class. Alongside Syracuse University, a private school that boasts one of the highest tuition rates in the nation, a drive of less than a few miles takes one through visions of decaying houses and storefronts. Neighborhoods beyond the west side of the highway possess some of the most concentrated poverty in black and Hispanic communities in the nation.

With that history in mind, it’s time to think about what each replacement proposal might mean for the city.

Financial and Social Costs

The viaduct construction project is currently estimated to cost $1.7 billion and take 3-5 years to construct. Over the course of those years, traffic will need to be diverted through Route 481 the entire time. The annual cost will be nominal at first, but will grow with time. In addition, the viaduct option will require energy to power street lights.

The main issue with the viaduct option is that it bypasses the issue of segregation without consideration. The viaduct wouldn’t seek to remedy the problems of Interstate 81 so much as put a fresher paint job on them. Choosing the viaduct would mean ignoring entirely one of the main reasons the highway needs replacing.

The tunnel option is even worse. The tunnel will cost a staggering $4.5 billion and take 8-10 years to complete, with traffic being diverted to Route 481 the entire time. In addition to these initial costs, the tunnel will cost $10-$13 million more annually than the other two options, and that’s only at first. Over its lifespan, the differential will grow to encompass a gap of $20 million to cover the costs of 24/7 staffing and electricity. The tunnel will also incur energy costs, as it will require pumps to remove water and fumes and to introduce air. Lights will need to be active around the clock and the tunnel will require fire suppression monitors and other tools.

While the tunnel would at the very least free up space atop the city streets and remove the physical aspect of the city’s division, it also would do little to nothing to make due for the problems that decades of segregation have wrought.

Syracuse’s community needs the support that foot traffic would provide to put back into building the community. Instead, the tunnel would send potential consumers directly through the city, dropping them off at business centers conveniently outside the reach of affected areas. Destiny USA would make off well with this solution, but small business owners at the front of Syracuse’s segregation problem wouldn’t see a dime more.

Fortunately, the community grid is more sensible. With a more modest cost of $1.3 billion and a construction time of 3-5 years, during which traffic will only need to be diverted for 2-4 years, this option is both the cheapest and the least disruptive. The annual cost is also the smallest. Like the viaduct, the only energy necessity is for street lights to keep the road lit.

The most important benefit of the community grid is that it diverts traffic through the heart of Syracuse, showcasing the community businesses that have been struggling to stay afloat. The community grid is the only option that actually invests in the future of Syracuse and its residents.

Taking the Opportunity to Build the Community

Syracuse should recognize the importance of this moment and act on it. With the right replacement plan for Interstate 81, lawmakers have the ability to right the wrongs of historic mistakes and improve the conditions of the communities in Syracuse.

The community grid option offers low cost, quick turnaround, and a far greater contribution to the city than any of the other choices. Not picking it would be both wrongheaded and totally alienating.


Image Attribute: Pixabay