For the love of God, stop talking and tear the thing down already

In 1989, the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants played in the World Series. It was called "The Battle of the Bay." It dragged on forever, not because of long games, but because there was an earthquake that halted play for a little while.

Take 12 minutes or so to watch what San Francisco did with the part of their freeway that collapsed in that earthquake.


Video courtesy of Streetfilms

Now, why aren't we tearing down Interstate 81?

Other cities have moved or removed freeways with great success.

There are a lot of naysayers; let's look at the arguments.

It's too expensive. Actually, the raised portion of I-81 has been up about 10 years longer than it was meant to last, and it's going to cost roughly the same to tear it down as it would to rebuild.

Syracuse can't handle 60,000 additional cars getting off the highway and moving along city streets. If you build a street-level boulevard, you're likely to put a punch of businesses there, and traffic lights every quarter mile or so. If you're looking to head through the city, you're more likely to drive seven miles on the I-481/I-690 spur, than to get off the highway and drive five miles in stop-and-go traffic.

If you put a street-level boulevard, you get more pollution. This is maybe a valid argument, but maybe not. The item just above points out that traffic moving through the city probably wouldn't use it. And if there are businesses along the boulevard, you trade the pollution for the revenue. Or, gasp, you improve your mass transit so people don't have to drive on it. Repeat: gasp.

It takes longer to get places. Sorry, but Syracuse shouldn't be in the business of making sure people can get out of the city quickly. And if it's people trying to get into the city from the suburbs, maybe they'll just move into the city so they don't have to worry about it.

You risk losing lives if people can't take the highway to the hospitals. I disagree. I think that most people who take the highway to get to the hospitals are either (a) living out in the middle of nowhere, when they could be moving into the city (see item above), or (b) not in danger of dying, if they're not taking an ambulance, which can do highway speeds on local roads. Also, figure if you take out the elevated portion of I-81 – not the whole thing through the city – you're getting off at the same exit if you're going to St. Joe's, or another exit a half-mile away from the current one if you're going to Upstate.

I can't think of any reason you'd leave the thing up, frankly.

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.

Huh.

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?

Wow.

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.