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The highway is our Berlin Wall, and you saw what happened when it came down.

Syracuse stretch of I-81 nears expiration date

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Interstate 81 runs right through the heart of Syracuse. The elevated portion, built in the late '60s, is called "The Viaduct." It's coming to the end of its life expectancy, and is showing its years.

The city is trying to figure out whether to apply some serious duct tape, or tear the whole thing down. The Innovation Trail's Emma Jacobs reports.

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“People say that well obviously it’s not pretty and at night it’s dark and probably foreboding. People might not like to walk under it or bicycle under it. No it’s not a particularly friendly environment,” acknowledges the State Department of Transportation’s Bill Egloff.

Standing in the middle of a parking lot underneath the interstate, Egloff, a project manager, points out signs of the highway’s age. The underside reveals cracked cement and drainage is poor. When the highway was built, it wasn’t expected to last forever.

“About 50 years, so we’re about there now,” said Egloff.

Karl Horn was part of the interstate movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, working mainly around Rochester.

“The thinking at the time was well if we make it elevated then people will just be able to go underneath. And it won’t hurt anything.”

“When I started, there was no such thing as a bad transportation project. They were all needed and served a good purpose,” says Horn. The department was just punching the last pieces of the interstates through cities to get people who had moved out to suburbs straight downtown to work.

Horn says some downtown businesses in Rochester lobbied for the interstate to come downtown, to bring people right to their door.

And so, along with other urban renewal projects, the interstates went right through downtowns across the country. Freeways went through the inner cities of Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, and Rochester. And through neighborhoods like the 15th ward in Syracuse, then home to 90 per cent of the city’s African Americans.

“The highway is our Berlin Wall, and you saw what happened when it came down,” says Van Robinson “ the founder of the Syracuse chapter of the NAACP and head of the Syracuse Common Council.

Robinson has stacks of giant street maps leaning against the walls of his office and he is an encyclopedia of what streets go where in the city, and on I-81 in particular.

“The question today is not if it comes down but when it comes down. Because if we do nothing it means simply that the bridge is going to fall down on its own,” he says.

Robinson is actually not entirely correct on this point. The Viaduct could keep standing, with what the transportation department’s Bill Egloff calls a lot of “duct tape and bubble gum.”

But the decline of the throughway has opened conversation about what the city should do with the Viaduct. 700 people showed up to public hearings in May to talk about what could happen next.

Robinson’s subscribed to an idea popular with a lot of urban advocates that downtown expressways should be torn down. Along with some citizens’ groups and the Mayor, he’d like to see an urban boulevard at street level. Something that makes you interact with the city, not zip right through it.

However, some argue that interacting with all those cross streets could bring back the congestion and long commutes that downtown expressways were originally built to address.

Standing in downtown Syracuse, the Department of Transportation project manager, Bill Egloff, who will see whatever the next version of I-81 may be through to completion says it’s still too early to know.

Lots of options are on the table including raising the highway or putting it underground. Given all these possibilities, Egloff thinks citizens should weigh in.

“As you see this has been there for 50 years, well whatever we do next could be here a lot longer,” says Egloff.

The Department is taking comments from the public through the end of July. They hope to come back with a number of possibilities around year’s end.

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