Sunset Boulevard
by Ed Griffin-Nolan - Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Supporters of current I-81 speak at meeting

There’s still a long way to go before state officials come up with a plan for what to do with the 12 miles of Interstate 81 cutting through the center of Syracuse. At the Nov. 13 scoping meeting held by the State Department of Transportation at the Nicholas J. Pirro Convention Center, it became clear that opinions on the subject of what to do with the aging viaduct range all over the map.

Save 81–the alliance between businesses and labor unions that popped up earlier this year, seemingly in favor of rebuilding 81 in its current footprint–was well-represented. Leaders of the group, including labor leader AnnMarie Taliercio and Salina Town Supervisor Mark Nicotra, insist that they weren’t endorsing a particular plan for the viaduct; they were just opposing converting the raised highway to a street-level boulevard.

Earlier this year, says Nicotra, hotel owners along the highway contacted him with concerns about plans to divert traffic around the city. Workers at several of those hotels are members of Taliercio’s HERE Local 150.

“We were concerned that this idea of a boulevard was a done deal,” says Taliercio, who serves as president of the Central New York Area Labor Federation, the local AFL-CIO affiliate. “It appeared like a closed conversation. Nobody thought it was this far along. . .  There were a limited number of voices speaking out for the region. That’s why we spoke out so forcefully.”

Nicotra contacted state Sen. John DeFrancisco.

“Senator DeFrancisco told us it’s not a done deal,” says Nicotra. “He said we need to have a conversation with the DOT. Then we started to pick up some traction.”

Until Nov. 13, the group’s public face was a group of white politicians and civic leaders, most of them from suburbs and towns surrounding Syracuse. At the hearing, their newest member, Rev. James Thompson–of the Fountain of Life Church, on South Avenue, a small African American congregation–spoke out against the boulevard proposal.

“The boulevard is not an option,” said Thompson. “Just look at West Street and how it divides the community. We do not wish to see the city of Syracuse divided.”

Longtime South Side activist Walt Dixie, local head of the National Action Network (NAN), echoed Thompson’s sentiments in an interview after the meeting.

“NAN is opposed to the boulevard. We can’t support anything that negatively affects public housing, and people need to be able to cross I-81 to get to the hospitals,” he says.

Syracuse City Council President Van Robinson, the earliest and most persistent proponent of tearing down I-81, remains convinced that a boulevard is the best option.

“Traffic coming from Pennsylvania through to Canada could easily take the detour around the city via 481,” says Robinson.

Improving what he calls the underused grid of city streets would open up opportunities for downtown development and end the division of the city that occurred with the building of I-81.

“The Common Council has unanimously called for 81 to be taken down,” says Robinson, who was re-elected unopposed in November to a four-year term. “This other group represents the merchants north of the city. We are going to form an ad hoc group of largely city residents, and then you’ll hear the dialogue change.”

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