Area residents remain divided over I-81 replacement plans

UPDATED: March 7, 2017 at 10:31 p.m.

Tinica Short’s face turned solemn as she looked up at the hulking body of concrete and steel above her.

Red, disparaging tendrils of rust could be seen creeping around edges of the raised highway’s girders. The echo of tractor-trailers, passing overhead, was muted and distant. The base of Toomey Abbott Towers was across the street, and down the block the neat rows of the Pioneer Homes public housing complex were just visible.

“There’s a lot of memories and history around here,” Short said.

She has lived in this community, cut in half by the Interstate 81 highway, her entire life. Generations of her family have lived here. Her grandparents and mom lived here. She’s the current tenant organization president for Pioneer Homes, the complex that was bisected by the major highway’s construction in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the aging I-81 expected to undergo major reconstruction again soon, Short now worries the highway might again damage her community.

Residents who live near the viaduct like Short and others in Syracuse and the city’s surrounding suburbs, remain divided over the New York State Department of Transportation’s plan to address I-81’s structural deficiency in Syracuse. The NYSDOT began to officially analyze the conditions of the highway as early as 2008 for the project.

The NYSDOT had narrowed the options for replacing the highway down to two from 16, but in January announced a consulting firm would be reviewing all possible options for replacing the highway, including tunnel options that had previously been dismissed by the state. The firm is expected to complete its review this summer. The NYSDOT was also expected to release a final environmental impact statement on the project in January, but never did.


“We want to know what’s going on. If we have to move, when do we have to move? We don’t want it to just hit us all of a sudden,” Short said.

Short said she’s afraid the government will ignore Pioneer Homes when replacing the viaduct, much like it did when the highway was originally built.

A portion of the Pioneer Homes complex is located on the eastern side of I-81, directly below the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, while the rest of the public housing borders the western side of the highway, East Adams Street, Townsend Street and East Taylor Street. The complex is located in a neighborhood with some of the most concentrated black and Hispanic poverty in the United States.

If the state were to simply redesign and replace the existing raised highway — one of the options currently on the table for the project — the viaduct could be heightened up to 10 feet and would be widened 16 feet, according to the NYSDOT’s project scoping report. This means that some Pioneer Homes residents would be forced out of their homes, said David Paccone, the assistant executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority.

Short supports the community grid option because it would destroy the viaduct, and the tunnel options seem inconceivable with wet soil throughout the I-81 corridor in Syracuse, she said. The community grid option would reroute interstate traffic east around the city on current Interstate 481, which would become I-81, and cost an estimated $1.3 billion.

Paul Shubmehl, a Franklin Square resident who has lived near the tangled intersection of I-81 and Interstate 690 in Syracuse for about 18 years, is worried the city will be damaged by the project and could be left in worse shape than it is now after construction.

Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer

Paul Shubmehl

“My concern is that there hasn’t been an adequate marriage with the highway engineer’s responsibility to what effective urban planning might be for the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County,” he said.

Shubmehl has been working with an informal group of Franklin Square and Syracuse Northside residents to make sure the NYSDOT is aware of the project’s impacts north of I-690. People have focused on the effects the project will have on the city south of I-690, he said, sometimes forgetting how it would impact Franklin Square and the Northside.

The NYSDOT has proposed widening and straightening I-81 north of I-690, while also creating new connecting ramps between I-81 and I-690 and merging different on-ramps in the area. The proposed new connecting ramp from southbound I-81 to westbound I-690, Shubmehl said, would be “right outside” his home at the Mission Landing condominium complex.

Shubmehl supports the community grid option because both the tunnel and replacement options, he said, do little to fix the divide created by I-81 in Syracuse.

Other residents, however, disagree with Short and Shubmehl, favoring the tunnel replacement options, which would cost an estimated $3.1 billion. Some have also celebrated the state’s consulting announcement, rather than condemn it like Short has.

For 43 years, Larry Pardee has lived in the village of Skaneateles, New York, which is located at the northern tip of Skaneateles Lake, about 20 miles southwest of Syracuse.

Pardee, like other residents living near the Finger Lakes, said he supports the tunnel option because the community grid option could negatively affect the area’s environment and Skaneateles’ infrastructure.

Heading to landfills in Seneca Falls, trash trucks from New York City frequently use small state highways that run northwest alongside Skaneateles Lake, he said.

“It’s a never-ending battle to get these trucks out of here,” Pardee added.

Pardee said he believes the community grid option could continue to indirectly damage infrastructure in his area, such as piping underneath roads, because of an increase in truck traffic.


Rick Coughlin, a DeWitt resident who has lived in a neighborhood adjacent I-481 for the last 19 years, meanwhile, said the viaduct should be replaced, not torn down. The viaduct hasn’t divided the city, he said.

“It’s a visual obstacle that’s unsightly to look at, of course it is,” said Coughlin, a commercial real estate appraiser who works in the Syracuse area. “But … no one ever really talked about this ‘dividing the city thing’ until this whole I-81 project started being talked about a few years ago.”

He said the highway has served its purpose and isn’t an “impediment,” and believes the redevelopment, gentrification and introduction of new families and professionals into downtown Syracuse have occurred with the existing highway system. Tampering with that system, he said, could tamper with downtown’s current “formula for success.” The estimated cost for replacing the viaduct is $1.7 billion.

Coughlin, who’s a member of the volunteer-based Town of DeWitt Board of Assessment Review, added that he believes property values in DeWitt will go down if I-81 is rerouted around the city and assessment challenges will increase.

Coughlin also compared the tunnel option to the Big Dig, the infamous Boston tunneling mega project that went about $21.4 billion over budget according to The Boston Globe. The tunnel replacement option for I-81 could easily go over budget, he said, which is why he doesn’t support it.

Rick Geddes, the director of Cornell University’s Program in Infrastructure Policy, said it’s not uncommon for the U.S. public to resist large infrastructure projects.

“There’s a lot more of the ‘NIMBY problem,’ which is ‘not in my backyard,’” he said. “You know, people just resisting projects because of the disruption due to the construction, or the views, all of those sorts of things.”

Ray Bromley, a professor in the State University of New York at Albany’s geography and planning department, agreed with Geddes, and said people “will make arguments of every conceivable sort” when backed into a corner by infrastructure projects.

Short acknowledged that, like the experts said, her primary concern is her own backyard, where the viaduct hums with the sound of approximately 100,000 vehicles passing through Syracuse every day. Short said she doesn’t want to see her community left behind.

“I would love to sit down with the people who actually get to make the decisions, say yay or nay on it,” she said. “Let us talk to y’all, why we always got to talk to the middle person? … Set up a meeting for the people who you are going to affect, and sit down and listen to what we got to say.”

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, how much the Big Dig project went over budget was misstated. The Big Dig project went $21.4 billion over budget. The Daily Orange regrets this error.

Banner Photo by Wasim Ahmad | Staff Photographer
Map by Emma Comtois | Digital Designer

Graphics by Andy Mendes | Design Editor