A cadre of federal, state and local officials gathered Friday to break ground on the $2.25 billion Interstate 81 project.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, U.S Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and White House Coordinator for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Mitch Landrieu came to celebrate the symbolic ground breaking.
Each hailed Friday as the beginning of the reconnection of a community split by the Interstate 81 highway and its 1.4-mile-long viaduct.
The viaduct, which looms over the city’s South Side and downtown, will be removed, and a community grid will be put in its place.
“Our vision is not just about building roads and bridges, we’re not just talking about fixing streets and sidewalks,” Hochul said. “It’s about bringing people back together. It’s about unifying communities.”
Hochul, along with Schumer, Gillibrand and Landrieu, each focused on the potential justice of the project. Eliminating the looming viaduct could mean cleaner air and a reconnected community, they said.
Friday’s groundbreaking at STEAM at Dr. King Elementary School marked the launch of the first two phases of the project, Hochul said. In all, there will be eight phases of contracts for the project.
The first two phases cover construction on the periphery, including some already underway. During the first phase, work will begin on I-81 and I-481 to the north and northeast of the city. The second phase will include work to the east of the city in DeWitt.
A ruling in a lawsuit brought by Renew 81 for All to stop the project could prevent the viaduct from coming down soon. Judge Gerard Neri ruled in February that early portions of the project could begin but that the removal of the viaduct would have to wait until more environmental studies are done.
The New York State Department of Transportation appealed the ruling in early March.
On Thursday, the New York State Court of Appeals rejected a motion by Renew 81 for All to stop even early construction for the project.
One of the people who helped bring that lawsuit didn’t make it into Friday’s event: Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland.
Garland alleged he was not invited to Friday’s event and that he was turned away at the entrance. A request for comment from the New York State Department of Transportation was not immediately returned.
While Garland couldn’t get into Dr. King Elementary, he was able to watch the groundbreaking outside.
The city’s Department of Public Works laid out a mound of dirt for the officials to dig into and turn.
As the officials dug in, Garland noted that the street on which the groundbreaking happened would be turned into a dead-end street.
The very man who persuaded Garland to run for his legislative seat, former Syracuse Common Councilor Van Robinson, dug in as Garland watched.
“I feel a little slighted,” Garland said.
A small group of advocates, including Paul Ciavarri, from lead poisoning prevention group Families for Lead Freedom Now, stood outside the groundbreaking. Ciavarri and the group held signs advocating for greater protections for residents who live in the immediate vicinity of the viaduct.
Their worry has been that residents who have already shouldered the worst of air pollution from Interstate 81 would have to also endure the spreading of lead dust during the project.
Families for Lead Freedom Now and the New York Civil Liberties Union have long advocated for protections for residents from lead dust that could be spread when the viaduct is removed.
“I share those same concerns. I’m going to hold our DOT to the highest standard,” Hochul said. “… This is going to be done the right way.”
Judge Gerard Neri ruled in February the state needed to perform additional reviews before tearing down the I-81 viaduct.
Neri’s decision was issued about one month after oral arguments in the case.
Local advocates have pushed for state officials to create a plan to protect residents’ health from construction.
We asked experts to analyze claims about the I-81 project’s effect on traffic and pollution that have arisen after a lawsuit was filed to stop construction from moving ahead.