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Judge orders halt to work on teardown of Interstate 81 through Syracuse

The demolition of the Interstate 81 viaduct that slices through Syracuse, New York, that was set to start soon has been put on hold through a court order.

New York state Supreme Court Judge Gerard Neri, sitting in Onondaga County where Syracuse is located, earlier this month granted the request for an injunction sought by a relatively new group called Renew 81 for All. The suit was filed in late September against the New York State Department of Transportation and several of its leading officials. 

(New York is the only state in which the highest court is not called the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court operates on the county level. The Court of Appeals is the highest court.)

“The project would result in traffic delays and backups, making the Community Grid into Community Gridlock, force trucks to divert an extra 8 to 22 miles around Syracuse, or through local streets, and cause numerous unmitigated but avoidable negative environmental impacts,” Renew 81’s suit said.

A rendering of the project to shut I-81 through Syracuse and reroute through traffic around the city.

The group’s lawsuit sought to overturn the project because it said the viaduct demolition and construction of an urban boulevard in its place failed to comply with the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act. 

Judge Neri’s injunction does not rule on the merits of the case. But it said Renew 81 had met the burden of obtaining a preliminary injunction by establishing the requirements for a court-ordered halt: likelihood of “success on the merits,” “irreparable injury” if the project were to go ahead and “a balance of equities tipping in the moving party’s favor.”

The state’s Department of Transportation has not issued a statement on the injunction. Engineering News-Record, a longtime publication covering the construction industry, reported that Syracuse Mayor Ben Welsh released a statement in which he called the injunction “another unnecessary delay.” 

Although the city is not a defendant in the lawsuit, Welsh said the I-81 demolition “should continue to move ahead and I look forward to the state’s response to the judge’s ruling.”

Demolition of the viaduct through Syracuse is considered a leading example of what has been referred to as “new urbanism,” in which highways through the heart of a center city, many of them elevated, are torn down in favor of local streets and boulevards.

The I-81 demolition in Syracuse would be one of the largest. But just down the road in Rochester, the demolition and reconstruction of the Inner Loop Parkway is underway and is a nearby example of part of the trend. That stretch of highway is approximately 2.7 miles. The length of the viaduct that was to be torn down in Syracuse is just 1.4 miles. 

(The Congress for the New Urbanism has a web page about the Inner Loop project along with several other projects that have either been completed or are targeted by the group.)

For trucks, the elimination of the viaduct through Syracuse would have required through traffic, northbound or southbound, to either head into the city and face the red lights and traffic circle of the new urban boulevard, or more likely, circumnavigate the city on what is now Interstate 481 but what would become I-81 upon the disappearance of the viaduct.

The Renew 81 group is backed by a diverse collection of individuals, including Charles Garland, a county legislator representing an area that will be affected by the project. In a statement reported by Spectrum News, Garland said, “We want the progress but why can’t we compromise? Come back to the table so we can address these issues.”

Garland’s statement also raised the racial aspects of New Urbanism, which holds that many highways that go through urban cores most directly impact minority neighborhoods. 

Garland, who is Black, said in his statement, “We on the Southside who are in the Black American community that has the highest chronic respiratory issues and hospitalization due to health problems … this impacts us the most,” according to Spectrum News.

As an alternative, opponents have proposed construction of what they have dubbed the Harriet Tubman Bridge, which is an elevated structure that would be 68 feet above the right of way that the urban boulevard would traverse. But ultimately, it still would be an elevated highway. 

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who recently was elected to fill a full term, rejected the bridge and any other options. 

ENR reported that the state DOT’s chief engineer said in September at an ENR-sponsored event that construction on the viaduct demolition was expected to begin later this year. 

ENR also reported that oral arguments in the Renew 81 case are to be heard Jan. 12, all but ensuring there will be no changes in the current status until then. 

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