“Rethinking I-81” Study Report Released

August 5, 2009

Anticipating the I-81 Challenge

The Onondaga Citizens League issued its “Rethinking I-81” Study Report with the goal that the community meet the I-81 challenge with a vision that is not mired in the past, but that clearly anticipates the needs of tomorrow.

 almond rendering with skyline

If your group would like a presentation on the study, contact ocl@syr.edu.


“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog

June 4, 2009

Making Streets Behave

New York City has issued its first street design manual, in an effort to make streets more environmentally friendly, and more amenable to bicyclists and pedestrians.  Urban planners see the document as a blueprint for designing the infrastructure for a 21st century city – one that thinks about streets as “…not just thoroughfares for cars, but as public spaces incorporating safety, aesthetics, environmental and community concerns.”  The guidelines help developers, both public and private, know what is expected of them throughout the five boroughs.

Here is what the manual says about itself:  The Manual builds on the experience of innovation in street design, materials and lighting that has developed around the world, emphasizing a balanced approach that gives equal weight to transportation, community and environmental goals. It is designed to be a flexible document that will change and grow, incorporating new treatments as appropriate after testing. The use and continued development of the Street Design Manual will assure that New York City remains a leading innovator in the public realm as it becomes a greater, greener city.

“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog

May 27, 2009

No ‘Carmageddon’ in Times Square

In a move to create a smoother traffic flow and more pedestrian-friendly environment, the NYC Department of Transportation shut down parts of Times Square to traffic.  On Tuesday, two days after Broadway was closed to traffic between 42nd and 47th Streets, cars, trucks, taxis and other vehicles still flowed as usual on Seventh Avenue.  The city closed sections of Broadway on Sunday, creating a pedestrian mall that extends to Herald Square.  

The bottlenecks and ‘Carmageddon’ that were predicted failed to materialize, not even on Tuesday, the first workday without cars.   Even 48th Street, “where cars now have their last chance to jog over to Seventh Avenue before reaching Times Square” …. “appeared largely trouble-free”.   (While midtown workers and pedestrians are pleased, delivery truck drivers are not happy with the experiment that requires them to park farther from their destination).

The experiment is part of the plan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner to ease dangerous traffic congestion in the area. Whether the Mayor decides to suspend the traffic rerouting or to continue or even extend it farther along Broadway, for now it is another example of the adaptability of drivers and the power of the street grid to absorb traffic.

“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog

May 20, 2009

Stent (or Dagger?) in the Heart of Town: Urban Freeways in Syracuse, 1944-1967

The 1961 Decisions in Syracuse, by SU political scientists Guthrie Birkhead, Roscoe Martin, and others, explored a series of case studies of metropolitan action in Syracuse in the Post–World War II era. The study focused on public decision-making and the relative influence of various interest groups in the power structure at a time of emerging demographic change and suburbanization.  The case studies are fascinating glimpses at how important metropolitan issues, from sewage treatment and water district  to government reorganization and real estate development were approached in a regional context. 

Although it occurred in the same time period, the I-81 construction was not a subject of the book. Creation of the highway system in and around Syracuse was much less a local, or metropolitan, process than a process in which federal and state plans, and dollars, determined transportation developments.  The recent study, Stent (or Dagger?) in the Heart of Town: Urban Freeways in Syracuse, 1944-1967, published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Planning History, takes a look at decision-making on the urban freeways in Syracuse. 

Author Joseph F. C. Di Mento, a professor of Law and of Planning Policy and Design at the University of California Irvine, concludes that the timing of transportation decisions in Syracuse was important.  Before the evolution of environmental law, and at a time when the urban renewal goals of “slum clearance” and redevelopment converged with the funding opportunities of the federal highway fund, the fiscally conservative city administration deferred to state highway plans.  A relatively weak city planning function and a “strong engineering-driven state highway bureaucracy and gubernatorial positions” influencing choices Syracuse made, “ …led to an outcome different from what city fathers and officials had envisioned…”.

The approaching need to reconstruct parts of the freeway through the city gives Syracuse an opportunity to develop a new vision for the community.

“Rethinking I-81” – OCL’s Study Blog

May 7, 2009

Building Infrastructure-Building Experience

This week’s Citiwire.net columns by Neal Peirce and Alex Marshall focus on the promise of high speed rail as the “New Deal” for transportation.  “My high-speed rail proposal,” President Obama is quoted as saying, “will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.”

Certainly, the costs of the projects will be challenging, but more than that, “America’s become tortuously slow, way behind world standards, in building any kind of infrastructure,” according to Peirce. “Some states spend years just adding HOV or exclusive bus lanes to existing highways.”

Marshall reports that former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, a big rail booster, says that over-budget, drawn-out infrastructure construction has become the norm.  State and local governments tolerate huge multi-year delays.  “The cure, says Dukakis is competence: to learn to undertake great projects again, and to value quality government.”

The I-81 corridor project, whatever form it takes, will be of a scale not experienced in Syracuse since the viaducts were originally planned and constructed.  Our elected officials and transportation authorities will have to exhibit the scale of leadership and guidance that a project of its magnitude requires.

“Rethinking I-81: OCL’s Study Blog

April 19, 2009


John O. Norquist, Change Agent

April 19, 2009

One of the panelists at this week’s annual meeting of the Metropolitan Development Association is John O. Norquist, a former lathe operator and community organizer who later became a state legislator and then mayor.  As mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, Norquist oversaw a revision of the city’s zoning code and reoriented development around walkable streets and public amenities such as the city’s 3.1-mile Riverwalk.   He also earned widespread recognition for championing the removal of a .8 mile stretch of the elevated Park East freeway, clearing the way for an anticipated $250 million in infill development in the heart of Milwaukee.

As current president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national organization promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl, Norquist continues the highway to boulevard campaign, believing that urban boulevards offer an attractive option for cities with aging highway infrastructure.  Cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Milwaukee have found that removal of outdated elevated freeways – major physical and psychological barriers – stimulates investment and new development in the surrounding property.

A close examination of the Milwaukee experience is instructive for Central New York as we plan for the replacement of the deteriorated I-81 viaduct through Syracuse.

“Rethinking I-81”: OCL’s Study Blog

April 6, 2009


The Onondaga Citizens League “Rethinking I-81” Study Committee has studied the history and the physical condition of the I-81 corridor, reviewed access issues, and examined cases of freeway removals in American cities. The study report, including the committee’s findings and recommendations, will be issued later this spring. In considering the future of I-81 in Syracuse, the Committee found several factors concerning the elevated portion of I-81 important to an understanding of the project.

• Due to age and structural deterioration, the elevated portion of I-81 through Syracuse must be replaced, not simply repaired, in the near future. In its current configuration, the I-81 viaduct and ramps do not meet current design standards. The reconstruction project, whatever form it takes, will require a huge amount of public funds and a permanent reconfiguration of some traffic routes.

In its entire length, I-81 bypasses every downtown except for that of Syracuse. Syracuse is the only city in the entire 855 miles of the I-81 corridor where the highway bisects a city. Moving maximum volumes of cars as fast as possible is fine between cities, but is not good within cities, because the systems that make speed possible are bad for local businesses, neighborhoods, and economic development.

• Downtown Syracuse is the only place on I-81 where the speed limit is reduced to 45 mph. An interstate highway that serves a high proportion of local traffic, as well as regional traffic, does not serve either optimally.

• The SMTC University Hill Transportation Study (OCL blog post #4) concluded that tearing down I-81 in the Almond Street Corridor and rerouting through traffic might be feasible. The consultants recommended an in-depth study of an urban boulevard in lieu of the I-81 viaduct, with through traffic rerouted to I-481. The report predicted that a boulevard option would improve accessibility for commuters, visitors, and emergency vehicles, create better connections between downtown and University Hill, increase economic development opportunities, and improve air quality in the area.

• The I-81 corridor is a significant barrier between downtown and the economic engines on the Hill, devaluing the commercial and residential development potential of property all along the corridor. SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University are the area’s two largest employers. These growing institutions, and others in the area, need room to develop and expand and can generate residential, retail, commercial and additional institutional development. They grow best when they grow organically and are well connected not only by car and public transit, but also by foot and bicycle, and in terms of visual quality.

• The I-81 viaducts were recently put under a special on-going emergency repair contract by the New York State Department of Transportation, signaling that the aging infrastructure will require an increasing amount of unscheduled repair work. As much as any solution will cost, the financial cost, and safety considerations, of not making a timely decision could be even higher.