Ladan Osnan advocates for the community grid plan for Interstate 81, Nov. 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Nearly 40 local elected, union and nonprofit leaders gathered with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday in Wilson Park to decry a lawsuit that has held up progress on the Interstate 81 community grid project.

A New York State Supreme Court judge granted a temporary stay based on the lawsuit, until he can hear oral arguments in the case. It’s the latest delay to a project that has been in the making for more than 10 years.

The lawsuit claims:

  • The review processes of environmental impact statements were too short.
  • The review process did not review the impact of replacing the viaduct on the whole region.
  • The viaduct’s teardown would violate a new amendment to the state constitution granting residents’ right to clean air and water.
  • NYSDOT did not adequately review other alternatives to the community grid.

Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland has become the face of the lawsuit but he among several plaintiffs, including former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler, Central New York AFL-CIO President Ann Marie Taliercio and a group of suburban politicians.

United States Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at Wilson Park in Syracuse, advocating for the community grid plan for I-81, Nov. 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

The lawsuit asks State Supreme Court Judge Gerard Neri to find that the state improperly arrived at its decision to choose the community grid, and didn’t adequately review the project’s environmental impacts.

“I was deeply disappointed and frustrated to hear of the legal hold placed on the I-81 community grid project,” Gillibrand said. “This is an ill-conceived lawsuit that would needlessly cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.”

Gillibrand’s appearance drew a number of elected officials. Mayor Ben Walsh, Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, much of the Syracuse Common Council, Sen. Rachel May, Assemblyman Al Stirpe and two Democratic county legislators attended.

Gillibrand said the lawsuit could further stall more than $2 billion of investment into the community. She said the state should appeal the hold.

At the edge of the Wilson Park basketball court, Garland watched the group.

He repeated the provisions of the lawsuit when approached by a group of reporters. He said he was concerned about the traffic on the new boulevard being dispersed into city neighborhoods. He said he worried that emissions from cars would spread into those neighborhoods.

Garland has pushed the state to consider building a bridge, higher than the viaduct, over a community grid.

Charles Garland speaks to the media at Wilson Park in Syracuse, Nov. 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

He promoted that idea over a year ago with members of Save 81, a group that opposes the teardown of the viaduct.

“There’s no reason we can’t come back to the table and compromise and answer the questions that have to be answered,” Garland said. “That’s all that I’m asking from other people.”

Syracuse Common Council President Helen Hudson was the only other elected official to join Gillibrand in speaking on Tuesday.

South Side residents Tara Harris, Ladan Osman and Robert Mike spoke in support of the community grid.

Osman grew up on Syracuse’s South Side and is a member of women’s empowerment group Layla’s Got You. She said delaying the removal of the viaduct prevents residents will delay environmental relief for people with respiratory illnesses and childhood cancers.

She said as someone with an autoimmune disorder, she is familiar with the effects of breathing in the dangerous emissions from the highway.

“We’re sick of Syracuse being overlooked,” Osman said. “You destroyed our community having the highway up period. Now it’s time for a change.”

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.