Tearing down Interstate 81

If you've managed to jump around blog-to-blog with me, you know that taking down the elevated portion of I-81 between I-690 and I-481 is one of big things.

People have to understand that the bridges either need expensive shoring up or expensive taking down, so it's not like it's a project that's coming out of nowhere.

The Onondaga Citizens League has started a blog (h/t to Greg Munno), and their first case study is I-81.

They start with some history, which is really instructive for me. I didn't grow up here, and at any rate, even if I did, I wouldn't remember the end of the Erie Canal and what that meant for the city.

There used to be rail service down Washington Street, and it was really difficult for people at street level – and not real safe, considering some of the cargo.

One solution was to consider elevated tracks. But people were adamantly against that. It would divide the city, they argued.

That's exactly why elevated tracks weren't built, and exactly what happened when the interstate was.


If I had my way, frankly, we'd rip up Washington Street and Salina Street, not allow cars on them, and restore passenger rail service to the old Syracuse & Utica rails that are still buried throughout the city.

We'd continue to run the freight trains where they are now, but turn the north-south corridor and the east-west corridor through the city into mass transit and pedestrian ways. With two-to-four trains running per hour on each corridor (depending on the time of day), I bet ridership could be huge. A couple of elevated walkways would solve the crossing-the-street problem, and trains aren't really any louder than buses, trucks and other traffic.

The other piece to the puzzle is University Hill, which is entirely cut off from downtown, thanks to I-81 (and don't give me that "why don't people just walk under the highway?" crap; it's seriously unsafe). A study was finished last year assessing the needs of the university area, particularly as concerns bike and foot traffic (PDF).

Imagine if all the Syracuse University and SUNY ESF students were able to easily patronize business in other areas – and people in the rest of the city were easily able to patronize the Marshall Street businesses without fighting with university parking?


There apparently is already a group dedicated to taking down freeways, and they outline challenges and successes.

If you want to get involved locally, watch the the SMTC's I-81 Web site for news, including some citizen forums.



  • Interesting Josh, had a recent conversation with LH on this topic just the other day. Forwarded her your comments.

  • josh – not sure if you remember me or not, but i was on the 40-below kickball team for the bill leaf fund a few months ago. anyway, it will be interesting to see the type of dialogue that will take place over the next couple of years between the city, county, state, and its citizens. personally, i cannot stand i-81 and would love to see it demolished (i could go on and on about the amount of negative things this highway does and has done to the city…).

    and i totally agree with your thoughts on rail service. i would sell my car in a heartbeat if there was any kind of trolly or light rail system going east/west and north/south in the city.

    with rising of gas prices, the thought of syracuse (a comfortably-sized city) adding reliable rail service and being way ahead of the curve on mass transit as compared to other larger cities (atlanta, houston, etc…), i can only imagine that it would be a huge boost for the entire upstate region.

    anyway, thanks for the links and here’s a link to my site if you’re interested…


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