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Secy. Of Transportation Pete Buttigieg Visits Syracuse, Says I-81 Replacement Should Provide Jobs, Safety, Racial Justice

81 pete podium.jpg
Scott Willis
/
WAER News
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is flanked by New York's US Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand as he speaks outside the Syracuse Center of Excellence, with I-81 behind him.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg stopped in Syracuse Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the aging I-81 viaduct and the plan to replace it with a community grid. The visit fulfills a promise made by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, who joined him.

Mayor Pete, as he’s affectionately known, says he feels a connection to Syracuse as the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Both are smaller, rust belt, mainly blue collar cities that have seen declines in industry and population over the decades. With the roar of I-81 traffic behind him, and dozens of area residents looking on, Buttigieg says Syracuse is poised for change.

"Now the city is rebounding in an extraordinary way, and yet these consequences of this legacy are still with us. So, now the state DOT, the mayor, county, and community are reimagining 81 to better meet Syracuse's needs, and to reconnect those communities that were once divided."

81 near coe.jpg
Scott Willis
/
WAER News
The lavender in front of the Center of Excellence near Almond St. contrasts with the aging, deteriorating viaduct.

We all know the story by now…I-81 was rammed through the 15th ward, a vibrant, largely black community. It divided the city, and contributed to the marginalization of those living in the highway’s shadow. Buttigieg says it’s what the Biden administration has talking about across the country.

"It's one of the most stark illustrations I have yet seen. The air quality issues affecting children. The economic issues of what happened when a neighborhood was rolled over and literally cut in two. We're not bringing this up to make people feel guilty. We're bringing this up in the spirit of hope that we finally can do something about it."

The Biden administration has made the 81 replacement project a top priority in its American jobs plan, and senators Gillibrand and Schumer are working in congress to ensure it gets funding. Gillibrand says her Build local, hire local legislation would put residents to work.

"That is a bill Sen. Schumer and I have worked on with the Urban League to guarantee that when we fix these legacy problems, the people who are trained for the jobs are local community members," Gillibrand said to applause and cheers.

The senators also recently included a permanent expansion of local hire or other economic hiring preferences for construction jobs created by projects funded by the US DOT. It’s in the Surface Transportation Investment Act, which has passed through committee.

Meanwhile, communities that rely heavily on their proximity to I-81 say their invitation to Secretary Buttigieg was ignored. In a release, Town of Salina supervisor Colleen Gunnip says their local small businesses stand to lose the most should the high-speed connection through Syracuse be eliminated. She says the state continues to dismiss the negative economic impact that a community grid would have.

81 pete crowd wide.jpg
Scott Willis
/
WAER News
A supportive crowd awaits the arrival of Secretary Buttigieg.