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Despite Federal Commitment, Many Steps Remain To Fulfill Local Hiring Goals on I-81 Replacement Project

WAER File Photo
The I-81 viaduct as it passes near the Syracuse Housing Authority offices.

It was a week ago Tuesday when US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg stopped in Syracuse to confirm that I-81 viaduct replacement project is a federal priority, and that it’s committed to ensuring Syracuse residents are hired to work on it. The visit reassured community advocates like Deka Dancil, president of the Urban Jobs Task Force.

"It signifies that the train is moving. Local hire is a priority. We need to continue to push, but I think we're going to be successful."

So, she feels it was more than lip service, especially since the federal government has made 2 billion dollars in grants available to seek racial, economic, and environmental justice on infrastructure projects. But at the same time, Dancil says the New York State DOT still has to take several more steps to make a solid, valid commitment to local hiring goals. She wants stakeholders like the task force, trades, and other community partners to be included as part of the application process.

"We need targeted workforce provisions that are legally binding and enforceable. Additionally, we need monitoring on those goals, and we need public transparency on the success rate of those goals."

Dancil says she’d also like to see a funding commitment to upscale Syracuse residents to be trained to work on the project. She points out most workers in the trades are white men who live in the suburbs. Dancil says the state application for local hiring needs to be very specific and targeted.

"What we don't want to do is get 6 and 8 months down the line, and say, 'oh, we can only make a 5 percent goal because Syracuse workers aren't trained to work on the highway.' That's going to be unacceptable because we know that now, and we knew that since 2019. So what is everyone doing to make sure there's funding for this upscaling."

Dancil says numbers show there is demand. The Syracuse Build pre-apprenticeship training program recently received 450 applications for 20 slots, and nearly 370 of them were from Syracuse residents. A final draft environmental impact statement for the I-81 replacement plan is expected later this month. That will trigger a public hearing and comment period that will allow residents, businesses and others to comment on the proposed two billion dollar plan. The state wants to start construction next year.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at