Response to Ed Michalenko's opinion on keeping I-81 through the city

Post-Standard letter

May 27, 2018

To the Editor:

I disagree with most of Dewitt Town Supervisor Ed Michalenko's arguments for keeping I-81 through the city (Dewitt Supervisor: keep I-81 through downtown Syracuse). I think many of the assumptions are mistaken, and the concerns unfounded. Here's why.

First, Michalenko claims that diverting I-81 to I-481 will be detrimental to Dewitt neighborhoods. However, only through-traffic (10-15% of I-81 traffic) will shift to I-481. Dewitt has some traffic issues around I-481 ramps today. It's generic to where highways connect to local roads. But that is Dewitt's own local traffic. Additional "through-traffic" by definition will not touch the ramps or Dewitt streets. Dewitt's local traffic issues can be resolved by improving its streets: interconnect streets more to form a proper street-grid to disperse traffic; avoid over-sized "catch all traffic" roads, and redesign major intersections for better flow (e.g., consider roundabouts).

Second, Michalenko suggests that there has been no regional transportation study of I-81 options. To be fair, I-81 Project reports include considerable regional traffic analysis.

Third, Michalenko reasons that those who say a tunnel is too expensive should not be concerned since the project is funded by mostly federal dollars. Be that as it may, how 2-4 billion dollars are spent on Syracuse infrastructure can make an enormous difference to the future prosperity of Syracuse.

Fourth, Michalenko asks why there hasn't been a discussion on regional mass transit to relieve highway pressure. Good point. But this seems an initiative that primarily he and other Town Supervisors should be spearheading.

Fifth, Michalenko suggests a "hybrid" option for the city, namely, both a tunnel, or viaduct, or depressed highway plus a normal street grid. However, this notion is implicit to all tunnel options. The problem is that I-81 is the principal cause of congestion in the city. The large amount of traffic I-81 aggregates to a few Syracuse exits causes too much congestion for an urban environment to handle and disperse properly. A street-grid solution would begin dispersing traffic near the city limits. Highways are for connecting city to city; the street-grid is for connecting myriad destinations within a city. The highway hurts the city. Both Syracuse and its suburbs would benefit tremendously if I-81 were diverted from downtown in favor of an improved street-grid, new development, improved local and regional public transit, and improved urban planning in towns and villages.

Sixth, Michalenko suggests that aesthetically designed viaducts and land bridges can become iconic landmarks, a tourist attraction, and increase real estate values. Terrific. So he should welcome shifting I-81 to I-481. Imagine a nice long iconic cable-stay land bridge across Genesee St; lots of space for an underpass roundabout; lots of new development space and taxable property. Dewitt could use the I-81 project to completely resolve whatever traffic issues it currently has with I-481.

Seventh, Michalenko worries for those who must travel across town without a highway to jump on. NYSDOT analysis shows that North-South travel times will be little changed. Remember that much of the converted I-81 will remain highway-like at the south and north ends of the city. The downtown section, parallel streets and intersections will be new and state-of-the-art. Overall, traffic flow downtown in all directions will be vastly improved for everyone and throughout the day.

Eighth, Michalenko also worries about non-commuters, postal carriers, delivery, medical services and the growing e-commerce need for efficient streets. However, hospitals and EMT services say they don't use I-81 in the city much and have no objections to the street-grid solution. More generally, only a minor percentage of trips have origins and destinations more or less aligned with I-81. An efficient street-grid is the best and only option to connect myriad destinations within a city.

Ninth, Michalenko argues that eliminating I-81 downtown as an environmental justice issue for South Side neighborhoods is not all that valid. He suggests that total traffic will be the same, and new development will likely gentrify the neighborhood. Be that as it may, the Syracuse Housing Authority is working on a whole new redevelopment of the nearby public housing. It favors the street-grid alternative to provide the greatest benefit to those residents: superior housing in a superior neighborhood with many more nearby jobs from substantial new nearby private mixed-use development. The low-income community will be protected. And for a poor city, a little "gentrification" should be warmly welcome.

Carlo Moneti