A major legal hurdle to tearing down the interstate 81 viaduct through Syracuse, New York, and replacing it with an urban boulevard was cleared Friday when a New York court overturned a ruling blocking the project.

The only legal route now for Renew 81, a group opposing the “new urbanism” project, would be to seek relief from the New York Court of Appeals, the highest in the state.

In a unanimous decision, a five-judge panel overturned a lower court decision that a new environmental impact statement was needed for the project, due to the planned construction of a semiconductor manufacturing plant in Syracuse. 

Friday’s decision was handed down by the Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department of the New York Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in New York is not the highest in the state; the Court of Appeals is.

State agencies in charge of the project, the Supreme Court decision said, “complied with the substantive obligations under the State Environmental Quality Review Act inasmuch as they took the requisite ‘hard look’ at the relative environmental factors.”

The court also said an environmental impact statement for the I-81 project based on the construction of the semiconductor plant was not necessary.

An Onondaga County legislator, Charles Garland, who is a member of Renew 81, was quoted by Syracuse.com as saying the group would likely appeal. “We feel that the facts are very clear, and that the Court of Appeals will certainly agree” with the lower court decision requiring an environmental review. 

In that same article, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh said of a possible appeal: “What’s the point? Their strategy from day one has been delay, delay, delay.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a backer of the project, praised the decision on X.

NEW: Following a court ruling today, we can definitively say that the I-81 Viaduct — which has literally divided the City of Syracuse for decades — is finally coming down! 
This decision is a landmark step in the right direction as we work to reconnect communities in Syracuse.

— Governor Kathy Hochul (@GovKathyHochul) February 2, 2024

The project would demolish a viaduct that sends I-81 traffic through the heart of Syracuse. Instead, I-81 northbound and southbound traffic would be routed onto what is now Interstate 481, which loops around the city’s east side.

The viaduct is 1.4 miles long and needed significant repairs regardless of what policy the city pursued. The state, on a web page about the project, said the entire corridor is 12 miles.

Renew 81 has estimated that diversion around the city could add 8 to 22 miles to any trip. 

In place of Interstate 81 in the city will be a grade-level highway and boulevard. There will be red lights along its way, but those are mostly toward the middle of the road, with the more free-flowing boulevard north and south of that center, which is a traffic circle.

Syracuse.com also reported that work has been done near the two ends of the right-of-way where Interstates 81 and 481 come together north and south of the city. Contracts for that work were awarded last August, according to Construction Dive.

The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) has been a backer of similar highway-to-boulevard projects, but the one in Syracuse would be among the largest. The “Big Dig” in Boston, replacing the city’s Central Artery of Interstate 93 with a tunnel, was one of the most prominent New Urbanism projects.

On its web page, it said of the Syracuse plans: “The construction of Interstate 81 in Syracuse came with the forced displacement of nearly 1,300 residents from the city’s 15th Ward. It devastated a historic black community, severing the social fabric of the community and razing swaths of buildings, and with them, affordable housing options. Neighborhood deterioration, a glut of surface parking lots, and citywide population loss followed.”

Efforts on what the CNU called the “I-81 Challenge” go back as far as 2012.

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The post Plan to replace I-81 in Syracuse with urban boulevard gets court win appeared first on FreightWaves.

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