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NYCLU Letter Calling for Stronger Syracuse I-81 Replacement Planning Process

For over a decade New York has been discussing plans to fix Syracuse’s deteriorating viaduct. Currently, the New York Department of Transportation is drafting a report that will evaluate the three possible solutions for replacing the I-81.

The NYCLU sent the following letter to Governor Cuomo and Department of Transportation Commissioner Kara regarding issues with the current planning process for the replacement of the I-81 viaduct. 

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

Mr. Paul A. Karas
New York State Department of Transportation
50 Wolf Road
Albany, NY 12232 

Dear Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Karas:

We write today because we are gravely concerned about the rights, health, and safety of Syracuse residents in relation to the replacement of the I-81 viaduct. Our concerns are exacerbated by what we perceive as a complete lack of common-sense interagency collaboration related to this project. We hope you will consider the issues we raise, especially with regard to community engagement and due process.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is New York’s oldest and largest defender of civil rights and civil liberties. The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, we have more than 200,000 members and supporters across New York. Our Central New York chapter, headquartered in Syracuse, was founded in 1963 by New Yorkers experiencing the construction of the I-81 viaduct.

The original construction devastated a neighborhood that was home to Syracuse’s working-class black community, previously known as the 15th ward.  Its construction severed the social fabric of the community, destroyed swaths of buildings, and physically isolated the Southside of Syracuse from wealthier neighborhoods across Onondaga County. It contributed to the severe racial segregation of public schools in the area by limiting housing access and facilitating white flight. Experts agree that Syracuse made a huge mistake with this construction, and you yourself, Governor Cuomo, have called it a “classic planning blunder.” In a hasty and ill-conceived grab for federal funds, the City grievously wounded itself.

The replacement of I-81 presents an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. As far as we can tell, however, the various agencies involved have so far failed to collaborate with each other to ensure they are acting in the best interests of Syracuse residents.

For example, the Department of Transportation and Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA) have not worked together to determine what is in the best interest of the residents and families who reside a stone’s throw away from the highway. With a massive construction project that is scheduled to last up to ten years right in their back yards, residents still have no information about road closures, air quality, transportation access, or noise pollution. Further, there is no information from the Department of Transportation or Syracuse City School District on how the plan will affect the more than 500 students at the local elementary school. Parents have been told that the school is on the state’s closing list, as if that is sufficient information. 

Finally, there has been lots of public talk about offering SHA residents Section 8 vouchers to move into private housing, though it is common knowledge that Syracuse lacks adequate housing stock to support them, and landlords outside the city are not required to accept Section 8 vouchers.

Although the details of what will replace I-81 are still in dispute, any decision needs to take into consideration, first and foremost, the residents who will be directly impacted.

NYCLU is dedicated to working with community members to ensure that their civil liberties are protected and the injustices of the original construction are not repeated. We will advocate for due process and consideration of civil liberties with any replacement option, with the goal of improving opportunity and fairness, and ensuring stability and dignity for the communities most affected.

NYCLU is committed to fighting for racial justice in Syracuse. We believe that historic patterns of racial injustice must be considered and energetically addressed. Replacing the I-81 viaduct can either entrench existing segregation, contributing once again to massive displacement of black families, or it can create openings to rebuild Syracuse along more racially and socioeconomically integrated lines. It is critical that city and state officials prioritize the health and welfare of Syracuse residents, neighborhoods and schools at every step of their decision-making process, including those who are most politically marginalized.

We urge you to take this opportunity to quash local bureaucratic confusion and power hoarding by doing the following:

  • Require the development of an interagency omnibus plan for protecting Syracuse residents, particularly people of color, regarding issues of housing, transportation, health and safety, voting, and schooling;
  • Provide a real platform for deeply engaging the people who live closest to the viaduct  and hearing what they want for their neighborhood;
  • Invest in a planning process for reimagining Syracuse school district borders that separate children by race and wealth, to a degree unparalleled anywhere else in the country;
  • Guarantee the health and safety of residents exposed to construction, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school;
  • Guarantee that people who live in the construction zone have the opportunity to participate in the economic revitalization of their own community;
  • Guarantee that people who are displaced by environmental impacts have a right to return to their homes, to avoid recreating the massive displacement of the 1960s;
  • Work to ensure employment and contracting opportunities for local residents.


Donna Lieberman, Executive Director
Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, CNY Chapter Director
Lanessa Chaplin, I-81 Project Counsel

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