The future of the elevated section of Interstate 81 that bisects downtown Syracuse has been of particular interest to local, state and federal transportation agencies for the last several years. While the process has been contentious, pitting the city’s interests against those of the surrounding suburbs, options for the freeway have been narrowed down to rebuilding to modern specifications or replacing it with a surface boulevard. But the time for a decision is approaching.
The New York State Department of Transportation issued the final scoping document in April, but there’s still no word on when the two Stakeholders Advisory Work Groups — which will provide a key opportunity for the community to weigh in — will meet. With a new commissioner at the helm (former Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll) and Deputy Secretary (former NACTO Director Ron Thaniel), there’s a lot of possibility here.
The benefits for replacing an urban freeway with a boulevard (or an alternative accommodation) are difficult to quantify but well-known. Traffic is dispersed into the urban grid; safety invariably improves; and the host city and region accrue economic benefits. As research on freeway removal continues to proliferate, stakeholders of a renewed I-81 corridor can understand the potential for Syracuse.
San Francisco has removed two of its freeways (the Embarcadero and Central Freeway spur) in the past 20 years. Researchers from UC Berkeley’s University of California Transportation Center confirmed that property values suffer from a disamenity effect when properties are adjacent to a noisy, unattractive elevated freeway and experience an amenity effect when along a landscaped, safely designed boulevard. In other words, urban freeways depressed nearby property values and economic potential whereas boulevards increased them.
This effect has been observed in cities with lower land values and demand comparable to Syracuse. Prior to the eastern end rebuilding of Rochester’s Inner Loop, one study found that removing that small section of the freeway would increase adjacent property values by $20-23 million.
If anything, Syracuse has the potential for significant economic development along a revitalized I-81 corridor. Recently, the Central New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects noted a significant proportion of lots along I-81 are unoccupied, presumably due to the viaduct’s presence.
ReThink81, a coalition of planners, residents and other local stakeholders based in Syracuse, found that replacing I-81 with a boulevard would open up at least seven acres of land for potential development with almost $140 million in market value and $5.3 million in annual taxes. In contrast, rebuilding the viaduct ultimately could cause Syracuse to lose $85 million between increased taxes, significant takings of private land and buildings and depressed property values—as well as a reduction of more than $3.2 million in yearly tax receipts. The opportunity cost of rebuilding would amount to nearly $225 million in capital lost, independent of construction costs, while the city would forgo almost $8.7 million in annual taxes.
For decades, the I-81 viaduct has hindered the region’s overall economic growth by cutting off downtown Syracuse from University Hill and preventing development in a high-value area. The economic benefits are neither fuzzy nor hard to understand, as demonstrated by other cities’ experiences. For the future of Syracuse, Onondaga County and New York State, the viaduct must come down.