In addition to fixing deteriorating bridges and roads, the $2-billion-plus project to replace the Interstate-81 viaduct in Syracuse, N.Y., must also repair multi-generational economic and health damage caused by the freeway's destruction of the city’s Black community, activists say.

About 1,300 Black residents were displaced to make way for I-81, completed in 1968, resulting in the “irreversible loss of property and and business ownership, access to jobs, and social and community connections,” the New York Civil Liberties Union says in “Building a Better Future: the Structural Racism Built Into I-81, and How to Tear it Down,” a December 2020 report based on two years of interviewing and working with community members impacted by the project then and now.

While the New York Dept. of Transportation draft design for the replacement, released April 2019, makes strides in righting some of those wrongs, residents remain wary, says Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, an assistant director at NYCLU and an author of the report

The next draft is slated to come out in late July or early August, with 60 days of public comment and a final draft set for release in January.

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Nationwide Initiatives 

I-81 was part of the 1950s the Federal Highway Act massive infrastructure initiative to unify the country via national freeways. But a lesser goal was to eradicate so-called slums and ghettos, which Owens-Chaplin argues were “really just underfunded Black and Brown communities."

Residents were displaced after being compensated less than market rates for their homes, and forced to relocate in neighborhoods with fewer resources for groceries or health care than before, according to the NYCLU. The loss of home equity, coupled with I-81 physically cutting people off from job opportunities, caused “generational loss of wealth accumulation,” the organization says.

Now, governments have the opportunity to offer more benefits while also repairing the crumbling highway, advocates say. The current draft report includes enhanced pedestrian and bicycle connections to allow for better connection of neighborhoods, business districts and other destinations, maintained access to existing local bus service and improvied bus stops and bus shelters.

After studying and rejecting options such as a new viaduct or an underground tunnel, the preferred alternative is the “community grid.”

This would demolish the existing viaduct between a bridge near Renwick Ave. and the I-81/I-690 interchange. New roadways would disperse traffic through the city grid, include new pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and create a new business loop dubbed "BL 81.”

The preferred alternative isn’t perfect, activists fret, although authorities seem to be listening. 

One big issue was the possible use of Wilson Park, the area’s only public outdoor space, as the staging area for the project. But Owens-Chaplin says NYDOT now promises the park is no longer planned for staging, and won’t house heavy equipment. A 20-ft barrier around it will be placed around it to protect the park.

Land Use, Jobs for Locals

Dodge Analytics reports that the project, in its database since April, will break ground in August 2022 with a target finish date of July 2028. Dodge, which estimates project cost at $2.2 billion, does not name any outside firms as designers or engineers.

Construction firms, however, did attend the NYCLU community meetings pre-pandemic, Owens-Chaplin says. The group has slowly restarted outdoor meetings, virtual discussions and phone trees to keep residents informed. 

Another community hope is for training and hiring of locals to work on the replacement, which would allow people to gain financially from a project that will disrupt their lives with noise, dust and other impacts of construction.

While it’s not clear what the new draft documents will say, politicians at the June press conference addressed the issue optimistically. Sen. Chuck Schumer,(D-NY) proclaimed that construction jobs related to I-81 were “going to lift poor people into the middle class.”