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Will Jobs from Syracuse’s I-81 Project Go to People Who Need Them Most?

By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center

When Interstate 81 in Syracuse was erected more than 60 years ago, it tore through the heart of a majority Black, working class community and economically devastated the neighborhood.

I-81 caused what few jobs existed before the construction to disappear as white flight took hold, the tax base vanished, and poverty set in.

Now I-81 is aging and is expected to be replaced by a community grid. Doing so will take seven-to-ten years and cost around $2 billion. The construction will also create thousands of good-paying jobs in an area that sorely needs them. But the question is, who will get those jobs?

Will it be Syracuse’s impoverished residents who have lived under the shadow of I-81? For decades, community members closest to the highway have endured the brunt of the negative economic, health, and educational impacts that I-81 created. Will the jobs go to residents of Syracuse — 45 percent of whom are people of color — who have seen economic opportunities vanish, in part because of I-81? 

If the status quo is any indication, we have reason to be worried that the people who need and deserve these jobs the most, won’t get them. 

A report by the Urban Jobs Task Force and Legal Services of Central New York looked at recent construction projects in the Syracuse area. The report found that 88 percent of workers on the construction sites were white.

Researchers got access to the zip codes of the workers who labored on two of the projects studied in the report. Those zip codes revealed that only 2 percent of the white workers on one construction site and 7 percent on the other lived in Syracuse. The systemic racism and concentrated poverty that infect Syracuse are helping to create a vast disparity between Syracuse’s population and the people who work on the city’s construction sites. 

For the I-81 project to be different, the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) –which is funding 20 percent of the project – and the federal DOT – which is kicking in the rest –must be intentional and innovative in the way they plan for this impending project. First, the New York DOT should implement requirements that will ensure a large percentage of I-81 jobs go to local residents, including those who are disadvantaged and people of color.

The Urban Jobs Task Force released a set of recommendations with ideas for exactly how to do this. The recommendations center on increasing access to training, apprenticeships, and construction unions in the city’s poor communities of color. 

If the status quo is any indication, we have reason to be worried that the people who need and deserve these jobs the most, won’t get them. 

We can also look to cities like Los Angeles for examples of how governments can ensure that construction jobs on big projects go to qualified people who need them most.

Unfortunately, the New York DOT included little to nothing about any steps it might take in this direction in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that the department released earlier this year. The final version of the department’s Environmental Impact Statement, due out next year, will help guide how the I-81 project is implemented.

The new construction will create hardship for hundreds of families living near I-81. It will make it harder for people to get to school and work; construction dust could hurt their lungs; the noise from construction will be a regular burden. We cannot ask those who live close to the highway to navigate even more obstacles while the benefits of construction flow to white people who live outside of Syracuse – miles away from I-81 and the problems it has spawned. 

The report on the inequity in Syracuse’s construction industry presents strong evidence that racial inequity is deeply rooted within the construction trades of Central New York. If these disparities are not addressed by the DOT and other relevant stakeholders, Syracuse residents, especially minorities, will not be able to benefit from the thousands of good-paying jobs that are coming to their city through I-81 and beyond.

This is unacceptable.

There are people in Syracuse, including people who live near I-81, who are ready, able, and eager to perform the jobs that will come as a result of the community grid’s construction. The State and Federal DOT’s must do everything possible to make sure those people share in the economic benefits of this massive development project. 

The NYCLU and UJTF are working together as part of a coalition dedicated to achieving equity in the construction trades in Central New York. You can attend an upcoming community meeting where you’ll find out more and learn what steps you can take to join us in this fight.

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