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For I-81 and environmental justice, details matter more than words

Federal, state, and local officials can use the term “environmental justice” to sell a project, but the devil is always in the details.

In the seemingly settled debate over what will replace the I-81 viaduct that cuts through the heart of Syracuse, the term “environmental justice” has recently been thrown around quite a bit. The project is being billed by local and state officials as a way to bring environmental justice to an area of Syracuse that was devastated by the original construction of the highway more than 50 years ago.

But the hard truth about this project to replace the crumbling portion of I-81 is this: The largely Black and brown residents living in the shadow of the viaduct will bear the burden of this redevelopment. And if what the New York state Department of Transportation has proposed goes through unchanged, the residents in this community will be forced to live through five to seven years of construction with few protections. Children’s education will be disrupted and many residents may ultimately be displaced from their homes.

People in this community — which was just devastated by Covid-19 — live in what the Environmental Protection Agency calls an “environmental justice community.” This means its residents have been historically ignored or left out of government decision-making processes and are now over-burdened by pollution and poverty.

The original construction of I-81 more than 50 years ago destroyed a working-class Black neighborhood, and discriminatory housing practices — like redlining and exclusionary zoning — severely limited uprooted residents’ access to other neighborhoods. It is now the responsibility of public officials to ensure this does not happen again.

To that end, politicians are saying the right things. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh recently hailed the I-81 replacement project as a chance to right a historic wrong and promote environmental justice. “I-81 is a near shovel ready project that will speed our recovery from the pandemic and promote environmental justice and job growth,” Walsh tweeted last month.

The redevelopment of I-81 requires federal approval and funding before it gets underway.

That approval appears to be likely as Walsh tweeted he was “very encouraged” by his recent meeting with new Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in which they discussed I-81.

“They see I-81 as a prime candidate for a demonstration on how to do federal transportation projects the right way,” Walsh said about his meeting with the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor.

The messaging coming out of the White House has also been encouraging. Buttigieg recently put out a statement renewing this country’s commitment to equity by proclaiming, “Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources. In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”

President Joe Biden further touted his dedication to racial and environmental justice with the signing of two executive orders. These orders express the administration’s commitment to undo the harms of environmental racism and to advance racial equity and support underserved communities.

But to truly live up to the rhetoric of these executive orders, the state must revisit the current redevelopment plan.

There is widespread agreement that, at a minimum, the viaduct must come down. The state DOT’s preferred option to replace I-81 with a walkable community grid is a great step in the right direction. There is a real opportunity to improve the housing conditions, health, and economic and educational opportunities of the people who live near the viaduct. But making this project the catalyst for knitting back together a community the highway destroyed will take significant work.

It won’t happen by merely tearing down I-81. In fact, the state DOT’s current plan to replace the viaduct could actually further harm the people in the environmental justice community.

The plan threatens to spur massive gentrification, pushing thousands of people out of their homes. It also calls for putting a highway access ramp 250 feet from an elementary school – ignoring

and putting students’ health at further risk. And there are no safeguards in place to ensure that the economic growth produced by the jobs that flow from this project will go to people in the environmental justice community.

To ensure equitable and fair outcomes, these deficiencies must be fixed. Using buzzwords like “environmental justice” won’t mean anything unless officials’ actions seek to repair injustice and fight racism.

In December, the NYCLU released a report that goes into great detail about what a just and equitable I-81 project would look like. The report is based in large part on specific feedback from people who live in the environmental justice community.

The report calls for the people in this community to have a meaningful say in what happens in their backyards. Improvements in health, housing, education, and economics will only happen if people in this community have control of their own futures and the resources to carry out their vision.

This piece was originally published in the Syracuse Post-Standard

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