Tear Down I-81, for the Sake of the Economy

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 contentiouspitting 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.

6 Comments on "Tear Down I-81, for the Sake of the Economy"

  1. Clark Morris | July 9, 2015 at 9:43 pm |

    I have looked at the transit plan and some of the other documents by going to the web site for the project. I assume that I81 would be routed over the current I481 and that the stretch between the 2 interchanges is the one being considered for being made into a boulevard. I also like the idea that they are at least willing to consider light rail, something that TSTC seems to be allergic to.

  2. R.M.Ellsworth | July 12, 2015 at 11:47 am |

    What isn’t mentioned here is the cost to all the users of I-81 whose travel will be impaired, or who will be exposed to enforcement actions and citations on the no-doubt-speed-restricted ‘boulevard’.

    That’s not to say the central-city expressway shouldn’t be replaced — only that comparable limited-access ‘freeway’ be provided around center city to keep I-81 unsevered and its through traffic unimpeded.

    For example, I live in Memphis, which I believe was the first area to fight routing an Interstate directly through part of its downtown metropolitan area. There’s lots to be said for having no ‘Chinese walls’ or inaccessible overhead trestles in the downtown area — hopefully the era where downtowns were assumed to be blighted slums with little inherent property value is past — but there is also little to be said about traffic on a major Interstate route necking down to one 45-mph limited sharp-curving lane in two places, as it did for many years after the main 1-40 route that is now in part Sam Cooper Boulevard was stopped. (And I never drive Sam Cooper without seeing at least one traffic stop, or at least one car waiting in a side street to enforce the lower speed limit.) I might also mention there are unintended consequences — I had a horrifying near-miss on the curving part of the ‘boulevard’ near a school, when the one crossing guard flagged only the eastbound lanes of a divided boulevard, but let little kids wander across the westbound lanes while the traffic lights were green! (Hint to Syracuse if you do put in boulevards — give the crossing guards pushbuttons for the traffic signals, and do NOT rely on whistles to make cross traffic on the far side stop…)

    I also formerly lived in Manhattan, during and after the fall of the West Side Highway and its ultimate replacement with a “boulevard”. Comparing trip time and ease between the East River Drive and the West Side abortion, especially compared with how circum-Manhattan traffic ran before the elevated ‘ring’ highway route was lost, is instructive. You will NOT like the added pollution, or the congestion at peak times, that go along with boulevards that experience any substantial number of over-the-road trucks combined with peak commuter vehicle traffic.

    In short, if it looks as if replacement rather than repair is the ‘best’ economic solution to problems with the downtown portion of the I-81 viaduct, I’d give serious thought (even with the lower projected numbers for private automobile use and traffic) to implementing the replacement as a peripheral grade-separated road of at least four lanes with median separation and shoulders, built to Interstate curve and grade standards. Then if you want a boulevard substituting for the removed elevated downtown road, more power to you!

  3. Nathanael | July 15, 2015 at 6:57 am |

    Elevated I-81 is so dangerous that I’ve stopped driving on it anyway. The existing section is ready to collapse.

    Replacement (in location, elevated) is *compeletely unaffordable* and would continue to wreck the neighborhoods around it.

    Teardown is affordable and would make for a much nicer city to visit.

    (Long-distance through traffic on I-81 would be rerouted along the already-existing beltway, I-481.)

  4. Nathanael | July 15, 2015 at 6:58 am |

    R M Ellsworth: there’s already a beltway expressway in Syracuse; it’s called I-481. The part of I-81 proposed to be torn down is parallel to I-481.

  5. Nathanael | July 15, 2015 at 7:01 am |

    I should note that I’m one of the people driving in from out of Syracuse, so I’m one of the people you might expect to want the elevated I-81. Well, I don’t.

  6. Steven Schindler, PE, PTOE | October 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm |

    I always laugh at how urbanists claim that tearing down freeways make things safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, when they are dumping much more traffic on at-grade streets that pedestrians and bicyclists would have to deal with.

    Furthermore, the so-called “shared-use paths” for bicyclists are little more than glorified sidewalks where bicyclists have to continually dodge pedestrians walking in the middle of the path, pedestrians walking their often uncontrolled dogs, and having to stop at every intersection with two huge bumps (curb ramps and detectable warning strips for visually-impaired pedestrians) at each intersection. They simply suck for bicyclists! Separated two-way bike lanes are worthless too.

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