Re-building Interstate I-81 in Syracuse, NY

The US edition of the Guardian has picked up on the issue of the re-building of Interstate 81 through the city of Syracuse in an article entitled The NY Highway That Racism Built.  According to the article it was built through a historically black neighborhood because of racism.  I only want to post this article because the reality is that the location of the highway was dictated by geography.


Briefly, New York State wants to replace the highway through Syracuse because it is needs to be replaced.  According to the Department of Transportation website:

Interstate 81 (I-81) is important to the Syracuse area. The highway serves as a major commuter route, providing access to jobs, businesses and services in downtown Syracuse and the hospitals and institutions on University Hill. It also serves as a national and international north-south trade route from Tennessee to the Canadian border. This connectivity is essential and influences the livability, economic vitality, and sustainability of the Syracuse metropolitan region.

Portions of I-81, which was built in the 1950s and 1960s, are deteriorating and nearing the end of their useful life. Also, sections of I-81 do not meet current standards and are experiencing high accident rates. This is especially true of the 1.4-mile elevated section, or “viaduct,” near downtown Syracuse. Now is the time to address I-81’s safety concerns and the structural integrity of the viaduct. In order to do this, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are following an environmental review process. The purpose of the I-81Viaduct Project is to address the structural deficiencies and non-standard highway features in the I-81 corridor while creating an improved corridor through the City of Syracuse that meets transportation needs and provides the transportation infrastructure to support long-range planning efforts (such as SMTC LRTP, Syracuse Comprehensive Plan, and others).


According to the article:

In the 1960s, I-81 plowed through a historically Black neighborhood in Syracuse, displacing hundreds. Organizers’ dream of seeing it torn down may get new life under Biden.

Just south of downtown Syracuse in upstate New York, a stretch of highway has long divided surrounding neighborhoods.

On the east side are large buildings where university students live, well-maintained green spaces, and a wall that blocks the highway from view. On the west side is a predominantly low-income and disinvested Black neighborhood where the pollution from the highway exacerbates many residents’ existing health conditions

I believe that once the decision was made to bring the highway through the city that the location was destined to go through the neighborhood in question simply because of geographical constraints.  There is an overview map of the Syracuse region in the introduction to the draft environmental impact statement.  Not shown on the map are railroads that parallel most of the route of the interstate through Syracuse.

The Central Study Area map from the draft environmental impact statement shows the north-south route of I-81 through the city.  The viaduct that is the cause of so much concern runs between Downtown and Near Eastside south of I-690 which runs east to west.  Note that further south the viaduct separates Southside and University Hill.

There is a picture in the article credited to the Onondaga Historical Society that shows the highway being constructed that shows the hills to the south of the city that are a major reason for the location of the highway. 

This picture provides the rationale for my argument that the location of the highway was due to geography.  The picture looks south with University Hill, the location of Syracuse University, to the east and downtown Syracuse on the valley floor to the west.  Check the overview map and you can see that to the north there is a lake that precludes building the highway to the west of downtown Syracuse.  The most direct transportation corridor from the north into the downtown originally followed a canal which was followed by a railroad.  The highway route replaced them both.  Not shown in the picture is a railroad that cuts under the interstate at the end of the viaduct headed south along the hill on the left.  The most direct route to the city from the south followed this transportation corridor into the city. In order to connect the two transportation corridors, the most direct route was through the predominately black neighborhood. 


I don’t believe that the argument that the highway location was chosen specifically to target a black neighborhood stands up to the geography rationale.  This does not detract in any way the very real environmental and health impacts of the residents near the highway.  I have not doubt that in today’s political climate that the viaduct through this section of the city will be torn down and replaced by a community grid.  The arguments for and against replacement of the viaduct versus the politically correct community grid option boil down to value judgements. 

Ultimately the only thing I am sure that will not happen is that the community grid will ignite a renaissance of the city’s fortunes and revitalization of all the neighborhoods near the highway.   There are too many other factors at play to believe that the simply changing the highway will solve the problems that advocates for the community grid option claim are due to the highway.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and ( reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative ( Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

8 thoughts on “Re-building Interstate I-81 in Syracuse, NY”

      1. they should make snow melting machines to melt snow and drain it into the storm drains or drain it into resivors to collect for drinking water. we had a number of really intense snow storms to, some snow storms way out of season, way out of season, I’ve recorded the events on the mobile device, recorded it raining in winter as well. yet the vegetation is probably getting ruined by the road salt that is part of the problem, the road salt also eats away at the basin rings above the basin that’s a soft cement , those are normally under the iron plate drain between the pavement and the curb, had a sink hole on my road in the north from the salt eating at the rings and plate movement from mt carmel Illinois and the new Madrid fault line, ya don’t feel a epicenter in the north were we are as the epicenter was hundreds of miles away though we have clay and sand and top soil basically that is all very soft and when an epicenter of an earthquake takes place the waves traverse for long distances cracking basically every man made foundation there is cement or concrete. the retention dam between louisana and biloxi Mississippi broke due to it does absorb water and with rebarb in the walls it oxidised then begins to crack and prys the walls apart a tad bit leaving weak spots and too that area is on a known area that sinks from one to six inches annually so when they put up a cement wall its up against the raw forces of nature and breaks though everyone recycling plastic I’m wondering why don’t they just make a huge plastic wall instead to hold the water back


  1. Can’t argue facts. Very well thought out, clear, concise observations. All with merit. Over simplification of anything of this magnitude while reducing it to a singular social constraint reveals an overwhelming underlying skewed self serving uneducated opinion.

    The die is cast. The razing and reorganization of the passage will be done. The reasoning for such is subject to the individual or group that wishes to apply their own version of beliefs…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Also another issue is geology. All one has to do is research the cross sections of the Onondaga Brine Aquifer which gave rise to the salt industry which helped pay for the construction of the Erie Canal and made Syracuse a prosperous city and not the isolated swamp and malaria carrying mosquito infested village that it once was. In the early 1800’s, the metropolis of what is now Onondaga County was Manlius due to the existence the many mills powered by Limestone Creek and its many spring fed tributaries. A remnant of that era is the present day Swan Pond.
    It is approximately 300 feet to bedrock in areas known as the “Onondaga Trough” in the valley that is now is course of Onondaga Creek. If one looks at the skyline of Syracuse, the tallest buildings are on the eastern side of the city and not the western side. That is because the land is not stable enough to construct much taller buildings at the time most of them were designed.
    Also, without the redevelopment programs aka “urban renewal projects”, the Everson Museum would not exist where it is presently. How many cities can boast that they have a building designed by world renowned architect, I.M. Pei???
    Prior to the Interstate Highway Act, NY State had many proposals to build expressways through existing cities. Some came to fruition and they weren’t always going through predominantly black neighborhoods. Some were through some middle class white neighborhood’s like Dyker Park and Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Whitestone in Queens. In fact, there are plans for a series of parkways/expressways for Syracuse that date back to the 1930’s. They would of been far more devastating to downtown since they were cut and cover type designs that simply excavated a line through the city. The closest example is the canyon section of I-81 between Hiawatha Blvd and Butternut St. I-81 simply was an improved version of the Oswego Blvd/ Expressway which pretty much followed the old Oswego Canal prism. All one has to do is put in a FOIL request at the Region 3 Office at the NYSDOT to see the record plans. Unfortunately, these are details that are not being looked at in order to understand the WHOLE history of transportation in Central New York.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think they should just leave the highway alone rebuild it I think our politicians are committing City suicide and career suicide on your racist person would think the bridge is racist bunch of idiots we need new leaders


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