Interstate 81 undermined economic growth of Syracuse

Syracuse Post-Standard letter

September 1, 2016

To the Editor:

A response to "Interstate 81 vital to keeping Syracuse's economic center alive" comment by Minch Lewis. Lewis argues that removing I-81 from Syracuse will hurt the businesses that have grown around it.

Which businesses are those, exactly? The hospitals? The university? They have indicated they don't mind I-81 converted to a boulevard. They realize that much needed space for expansion will become available to them. Plus, their expansion is good for the Syracuse economy. Destiny Mall? The Salina hotels? They will continue to have a highway to their door. All that changes is that their patrons from Syracuse south will travel through the city on new efficient city boulevards.

I-81 transformed downtown from a vibrant mixed-use urban space full of people into a glorified office park. That lasted maybe 20 years. The developers made their money, but left behind a broken downtown and a dead zone after 5pm when office workers went home. Many of those office buildings have been sold for pennies on the dollar and are being converted to mixed residential/commercial use. The city population has fallen by 75,000 since 1950, aided by the decimation of the city's economic and cultural ecosystem to make way for I-81.

Lewis fails to mention the huge destruction of homes, businesses, historic architecture, and the loss of commerce and tax base in the 1950s to make way for I-81. Lewis also fails to state clearly the dozens of additional downtown business and residential properties (several historic) that will be destroyed---along with the tax base---to make way for a larger spaghetti junction necessary to conform to current highway standards if I-81 is rebuilt.

Many American cities have experienced the same history. 50 years later, the lesson learned is that highways through cities lead to economic decimation, not prosperity. Now, dozens of cities across the country---even Rochester---are removing their downtown highways. A true "street-grid" alternative will make 100+ acres of downtown land newly available or newly desirable for development. The demand already exists. The wave of new development will easily generate $2 billion in new construction, which will be in addition to the ~$1 billion DOT will spend to revise and improve city streets and intersections.

Lest we forget the importance of improving traffic, consider that highways are made to connect cities, not to disperse traffic to myriad destinations within the city---the job of the street-grid. I-81 is the cause of rush hour congestion. Making it bigger is no solution. The problem is too much traffic funneled to too few ramps (their street intersections). Traffic (on highway or street) is not limited by travel lanes; it is limited by the design and capacity of intersections. Dispersing traffic through a revised and upgraded street-grid---we'll have $1 billion+ to spend---will actually improve traffic overall for commuters at rush hour as well as for all of us at all times of the day.

Lewis' argument that removing I-81 within Syracuse is bad for the local economy is shown here to be grossly in error. In fact, I-81 has severely undermined the economic growth of Syracuse.

Carlo Moneti