Experts at SU forum show issues with tunnel option to replace I-81 in Syracuse

Apr 9, 2018

Experts on urban design and public policy offered their insights on replacing the elevated portion of Interstate-81 in Syracuse at a recent forum at Syracuse University. Some of the speakers favored a community grid option over a larger highway or tunnel.

The state Department of Transportation said the elevated viaduct has reached the end of its useful life and they will select a preferred alternative when a draft environmental impact statement is made available early next year.

Alex Kreiger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has been involved in projects like Boston’s tunnel, the Big Dig, and reducing highways in Asia. He began with a comment on I-81.

“I understand you’ve been at this for a decade," Kreiger said. "Let me tell you, you’ve got at least another decade to go.”

He said while there are some great parts to Boston’s Big Dig, like the green space on top of it, the problem is the traffic below eventually needs to exit out.

“When it comes out, it’s still very much highway like," Kreiger said. "The notion of a continuous greenway doesn’t really exist at all."

Kreiger also said the Big Dig did not stop more overhead highways from being built in Boston.

"Highways don’t bring development, wonderful public spaces bring development," Kreiger said. "Civic spaces, beautiful spaces where you can breathe freely in, bring development."

SU professor Jonnell Robinson said a tunnel in Syracuse could be problematic because an elementary school is about a block away from one of the proposed entrances. The tunnel itself could cost more than $3.5 billion.

Joseph Kane, an economist with the Brookings Institution said the Trump administration wants states and localities to pay more towards infrastructure.

“States like New York and cities like Syracuse already have their hands full and simply do not have the endless pool of resources to pay for infrastructure spending, even if they would like to," Kane said. "While it is hard to tell where the administration’s plan is going and where separate proposals on Capitol Hill are headed, I will say this, the federal cavalry is likely not coming, anytime soon.”

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said while the tunnel seems like a compromise between people who want to keep or eliminate the viaduct, it is not.

"If I wasn't convinced that the community grid option was the right option before this panel, I certainly am now," Walsh said.

He said the community grid is the opportunity to right a past wrong, put more properties on the tax rolls, and be more inclusive with mixed-income development.