I-81: An open letter to Vito Sciscioli

In his Post-Standard commentary, the arguments for retaining I-81 through Syracuse downtown are unfounded.

September 17, 2017

Dear Mr. Sciscioli,

Regarding your Post-Standard commentary of Sun Sept 17th. I agree with your central point that the I-81 Project should carefully consider its effects on existing businesses. To that end you seem inclined toward maintaining the current I-81 path through the city, albeit preferably by replacing the viaducts downtown with a tunnel.

Breaking down your commentary further, you appear to assume/estimate that: 1) rerouting I-81 around the city (via I-481) will cause substantial harm to major businesses; 2) a street-grid solution will worsen traffic in Syracuse; and 3) though the street-grid solution would open up more land to new development, there is plenty of developable land available in Syracuse already; therefore you discount the value of a street-grid solution in this regard.

Well, I don't blame you. Those views seem intuitive and reasonable; they are the first concerns that many or most people have. It is unintuitive that shifting traffic from an elevated interstate to city streets will not worsen traffic. Unfortunately, NYDOT failed to educate the public on the theory and practice of how and why it does work, and why they have long accepted it as perfectly viable option in the I-81 Project.

Regarding (1). Only 10-12% of I-81 traffic in Syracuse is through traffic. Such traffic is not by inherent definition potential customers to local businesses. Rerouting this traffic to I-481 poses no loss to local businesses. For the curious travelers, a designated "I-81 Local" route along redesigned streets will allow them to optionally drive through and glimpse a sense of Syracuse without difficulty of navigation.

Regarding (2). Whereas a highway cannot be provided to every home and business and instead channels traffic to a few concentrated areas creating local congestion, a street-grid is the one and only solution to efficiently shepherd traffic to its myriad destinations in the urban environment. Note that 90% of I-81 traffic in Syracuse is local, and so already uses city streets to complete their trips; there is no "added" traffic. The difference With a street-grid solution is that said traffic will hit the street-grid a mile or so earlier than today. And that will be on a number of redesigned and rebuilt parallel streets and intersections. For commuters, an extra 1-2 minutes on city streets will be more than offset by eliminating the current 5-plus minutes of congestion time on the last mile (or 1000 yards) from highway ramp to one's parking. A street-grid solution will actually improve traffic efficiency, both for commuters and for everyone else throughout the day.

Regarding (3). I think it's important to note that the current significant amount of developable land in the central city (i.e., the failure to develop more) reflects the current dim "development calculus" in Syracuse. Rebuilding I-81 will not change the calculus. A street-grid solution will radically change the calculus. Not only will many more dozens acres of newly prime land become available, but the planned shifting of traffic earlier onto the street-grid, including a few virtually unused roads and several more lightly trafficked ones, will draw much more development demand along them. With proper re-zoning as the city is currently developing, we can spur new mixed-use, mid-rise development corridors, which will also make them efficient public transit corridors. The shear momentum of development will draw national media attention to Syracuse and spur even more development interest. Proper shepherding of this momentum by local government could keep it going for decades. Successful urban development is about "place-making". That is what draws new residents and more business over the long-run. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity for place-making. A street-grid solution will dramatically improve the "development calculus" of Syracuse.

As to a tunnel option, it is just not needed. The city is much too small to justify a tunnel. Plus, the I-81 rerouting path (I-481) is already built. If the the federal and state governments are willing to grant us the largess of funding for a tunnel, we should ask ourselves as a community, how can we best spend that $1-2 billion more? Keeping within the spending rules of such funding, we could obtain expanded funding of the street-grid solution, and even funding for significantly expanded public transit infrastructure. If the city was yours, how would you spend an extra $1-2 billion in transportation grants?

Carlo Moneti