I-81 runs 855 miles from Knoxville to Canada. But one 1.4-mile stretch in Syracuse, NY could be a window to the future.

Fun fact: Dwight Eisenhower’s vision for the interstate system actually came from some roads he saw in Germany while a general. Communication lines got a bit crossed, though, and he didn’t actually realize interstates would run through cities until a few years after the construction process began. (Awkward.) Regardless, the interstate system was built, and took off, and became a staple of America – although some argue it should really be two different systems, although the infrastructure now is designed for one, and that’s what we’ve got. Here’s the thing, though: interstates are old (often built in the 50s/60s) and crumbling in some cases. Cities and states will be forced to make choices about what to do with stretches of road, and those choices have major resonance for where people will choose to live, where jobs need to be, etc. It’s like Urban Planning 2.0 (or maybe 3.0 or 7.0, depending on how far in you think the U.S. already is). Bus Rapid Transit is a concept gaining some steam — although it’s gotten fairly ugly in Nashville’s discussions about it — but again, BRT will only serve X-amount of people (varies by city), and our current infrastructure is set up for cars. Cars might be less of a thing in 50-100 years as the oil situation shakes out, so if you’re a burgeoning city with crumbling freeways, what types of decisions do you make to set yourself up as a future hub, potentially?

Glad you asked, random person looking at this post, because that situation is playing out in Syracuse, NY right now with the I-81 viaduct. (Fun Fact No. 2 for this article: in the entire almost 1,000 miles of I-81, the small portion of going through downtown Syracuse is the only time it runs through a city.) Its functional life is basically done in 2017. What then?

A lot then:

City leaders like Robinson, along with downtown developers and advocates for smart growth, would like to see I-81 rerouted around Syracuse and replaced with a landscaped boulevard. But suburban business-owners and many of the 45,000 drivers who use the highway to commute fear that any change could hurt the local economy. It’s a debate that goes beyond the immediate question of how Syracuse workers will get to work — to what kind of city Syracuse will be in the 21st century.

Cue John Norquist, the former Mayor of Milwaukee:

“It’s starting to happen all over the place, and there’s a reason for it,” says Norquist. “Freeways don’t add value to cities. They’re all about one dimension, which is just moving traffic. It’s a rural form, visited upon the city, that destroys property values, commerce and vitality.”

Syracuse has done a pretty good job of managing their city; Armory Square used to be run-down buildings and now condos sell there for $300,000-plus. University Hill (where SU is) is obviously vibrant, since 21,000 students are over there. The problem is that Southwest, a mostly African-American area south of downtown, is technically in walking distance of Armory Square and University Hill, but feels like a disconnected urban wasteland sometimes. The hope is that demolishing the viaduct would allow University Hill — i.e. Syracuse’s hospital — the room to expand, which might help Southwest flourish. City officials want I-81 done and re-routed, then.

The flip side is a group called Save 81, which argues:

“It’s about quickly getting to work, saving on gas, and getting home,” says Ann Marie Taliercio, president of the Central New York Area Labor Federation/AFL-CIO and Unite Here Local 150, which represents area hotel employees. Like many of the workers she represents, Taliercio lives in the suburbs and commutes into the city. “Our economic life,” she says, “has been built around the infrastructure we have now.”

Then there’s the tricky question of gentrification. If you knock down I-81 and re-route it and the city is ultimately right about Southwest neighborhood “flourishing,” then are we really talking about this?

Some African American leaders have also joined Save 81. Reverend James Thompson, a pastor at Fountain of Life Church on the west side of town, says many people are still upset that a black neighborhood was razed for the original construction of I-81. “There was a lot of uprooting of homes; the land had to be taken and people were placed in substandard housing,” says Thompson. While city leaders believe taking down the viaduct would only remove a psychological barrier that has isolated low-income areas, Thompson worries about what could happen if a boulevard—and the accompanying development—takes its place.

“This is the same old gentrification situation all over again,” he says. “If a boulevard comes in, the people that live there today, they’re going to be priced out.”

There are ultimately four options (one is basically a copy of Boston’s Big Dig, which didn’t seem to be that great of an idea), but cost data isn’t there yet (although the Big Dig option would seemingly be the most expensive) and neither is significant ridership data (hehe, no one understands data at all). Everyone is giving quotes that they’ll dive into the data and listen to feedback and make sure all voices are heard — far from the norm when the federal highway system was initially built. Basically, this discussion and the end result could shape Syracuse for the next ten decades. It seems preposterous to say that about a 1.4-mile stretch of road, but basically you’re asking “What do you want this city to be?” Similar discussions are going to play out all over the country — I-470 is a mess in St. Louis, and that’s a city with big companies (Busch) and some youthful vigor that could be transformed by a new context around infrastructure. It’ll be interesting to see how these things evolve.

Ted Bauer