Open letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx regarding the I-81 project

A full South Side and North Side street-grid solution is critical for the future prosperty of Syracuse.

December 20, 2016

To: Sec. Anthony Foxx
U.S. Dept. of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Dear Secretary Foxx,

Here in Syracuse, NY, we are in the process of choosing whether to rebuild I-81 through the city or reroute it and replace it with a street-grid solution---the community requested alternative for the project. I'll dispense with discussing the rebuild option because it doubles down on a bad idea (highway through downtown) by enlarging it, which will require demolishing dozens of historic properties, loosing more taxable property, and the public will not allow it. Anyway, the tea leaves suggest that the community and political leaders prefer the "Community Grid" (i.e., street-grid) alternative.

The NYDOT Community Grid alternative has improved quite a bit from its original plan thanks to NYDOT incorporating several suggestions from the community. However, many issues remain. Mainly, the plan proposes to keep and actually enlarge North Side I-81, plus add "missing" flyover connections to the downtown spaghetti junction with I-690, an addition we don't need or want and which will add blight to a recently redeveloped city district. Also, several historic buildings would be demolished or compromised. In a unanimous resolution, the Syracuse Common Council has asked NYDOT to reconsider it's plans to enlarge I-81. A summary of current issues is here:

The NYDOT plan addresses only the removal of a 1.4 mile viaduct on the city's South Side. But this was only "Exhibit A" of the community request to remove I-81 within the city. Deconstructed, the current "Community Grid" alternative is more accurately a "Rebuild I-81 with a 'remove one viaduct' option".

Simply put, the current "Community Grid" alternative does not fulfill the community requested project alternative: removal of I-81 within the city. We have a South Side street-grid alternative, but we are missing a North Side street-grid alternative.

A full street-grid solution will work much better than a one half solution: better north/south primary street alignments and traffic dispersion; and by removing I-81 north and south, the downtown spaghetti junction with I-690 would be eliminated as well (no longer required or relevant), a bigger win for the community than removing the southern viaduct, and would create vast new development opportunities for Syracuse. The hundreds of millions of dollars saved could instead be spent on improving numerous streets and intersections—a much greater benefit for all residents.

With the $1.5 billion projected budget, we could rebuild all the primary city streets and create more efficient intersections, plus, in the process, fix sewer pipes, lay broadband conduit, bury utility cables, add a couple streetcar lines and create new pedestrian plazas and green spaces (dig once, save big). Or, we could simply rebuild what is already there, effecting no meaningful or positive change on Syracuse. What would you do if it was your money and your city?

Moreover, while the Community Grid plan (est ~$1.5 billion) will likely stimulate an additional $1 billion in private development (Almond St corridor), a full street-grid solution will likely stimulate an additional $4 billion (Almond St, North Side, Erie Blvd E & W, and downtown) for a total of ~5.5 billion versus ~$2.5 billion in economic stimulus—both greater than the Rebuild I-81 option (~$2 billion). So the biggest prize for contractors, unions, developers, builders, and architects, and the greatest economic growth and well-being for the community will come from adopting a full street-grid (a.k.a. "Efficient Streets") solution.

The NYDOT mindset for addressing North Side I-81 seems inconsistent and quite opposite of that applied to the South Side. The DOT mindset of 10+ years ago (presumed need of freeways through cities) is still lingering in the corners of NYDOT projects despite the new thinking and policies USDOT has officially adopted since then (thanks for that).

So I ask you please to embolden NYDOT to include in the project a full analysis of a North Side street-grid alternative; to embolden local officials to stand strong for the community (they are shy, you know); and to embolden State officials to assure that the project is built according to what is truly technically, economically, and culturally best for the future of the community.

The community has submitted a conceptual plan for a North Side street-grid alternative. See: . If NYDOT should find fault with the details, then they should not reject it, but rather try their hardest to resolve the issues and make it work. For it should be clear by now that a freeway through a city is never a requirement; it is a choice, a choice that 50 years of experience throughout the country has shown to be a very ill conceived one.

Thanks for hearing me out.

Carlo Moneti